Egypt begins closing Gaza border, tensions flare

Egypt began closing its breached border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Friday, using barbed wire and water cannons to keep Palestinians from crossing into Egypt in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

Israeli air strikes overnight killed four Palestinian militants in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where Hamas blasted open the border wall on Wednesday, letting tens of thousands rush across to stock up on goods in short supply.

Pressed by the United States and Israel to take control of the situation, Egyptian forces in riot gear lined the border and began placing barbed wire and chain-link fences to prevent more Gazans from entering Egyptian soil.

Tensions flared as some in the crowd threw stones at the Egyptian police, who responded with batons and water cannons. As tensions rose, Hamas began to deploy its own forces on the Gaza side of the border.

”I have two brothers still inside Egypt. They should not close the border until everyone returns,” said one of the Palestinian stone throwers, 20-year-old Mohammed al-Masri.

Egyptian security forces told the crowd of Palestinians over loudspeakers that the border would close at 1pm GMT, although a similar announcement on Thursday was not carried out.

Hamas government spokesperson Taher al-Nono said efforts by Egypt to re-close the border were not part of any agreement with the Islamist group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing secular Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

”We insist and urge our Egyptian brothers that there must be a mechanism to allow the passage of people and goods through the Rafah crossing in a legal and organised manner,” Nono said, referring to the once European-monitored border terminal that has largely been closed since Hamas’s takeover.

In the two days since militants blew up the wall at Rafah, the border has been transformed into a giant open-air market, selling everything from goats to full-size refrigerators and box-spring mattresses.

One would-be Palestinian groom bought a camel in the Egyptian coastal town of el-Arish for his wedding day and rode it all the way home to Gaza City, a distance of more than 80km.

”I bought a motorcycle, cigarettes, biscuits, corn chips, cheese and a small generator. I think they can close the border now,” said 38-year-old Saeed al-Helo after crossing back into Gaza from Egypt. ”I think Gaza has enough food supplies for a month.”

Nono said that was not the case. ”The crisis in Gaza still exists, both in terms of fuel and electricity. What the merchants brought from Egypt was not enough to compensate for the shortages incurred over the last seven months,” he said.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday that it was up to Egypt to ensure the security of its border with Gaza, echoing comments by Israeli officials.

Citing the breach in Gaza’s southern border, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai advocated cutting Israel’s remaining links with the coastal territory.

Israel, which occupied Gaza in 1967, pulled troops and settlers out in 2005, but it still controls the strip’s northern and eastern borders, airspace and coastal waters.

Vilnai said Israel wanted to hand over responsibility for supplying electricity, water and medicine to others.

Israel has tightened a blockade it says is meant to counter cross-border rocket fire by Gaza militants that has sown panic in southern Israel.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank.

On Thursday night, Jewish settlers overpowered and shot dead two Palestinians who infiltrated the settlement of Kfar Etzion not far from Bethlehem, an army spokesperson said.

In a second incident, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli border policeman. — Reuters

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