Above the crowd of thousands floated a red mattress, still wrapped in plastic. Underneath, holding aloft their new purchase, Kayad Shalafa and his brother Said were returning through the sand dunes of northern Egypt. They walked back over the trampled barbed wire, past the placid Egyptian soldiers and on to the blackened hole in the concrete border wall they had walked through that morning from Gaza.
“I’m getting married in a month,” said Shalafa (30), a civil servant from Gaza City. “There’s a siege in Gaza, an occupation. Even mattresses are expensive there. What else can I do?” In one of the more extraordinary scenes of life in Gaza on Wednesday, tens of thousands of Palestinians poured through the border crossing into Egypt in an excited and desperate rush to buy food, fuel, blankets, goats, cigarettes, fertiliser, 50kg bags of cement, Chinese-built motorbikes and anything else they could find. Overnight a series of carefully placed explosions, almost certainly orchestrated by the Hamas movement, blasted holes in the wall, in some areas bringing huge sections to the ground.
On Wednesday morning the crowds did the rest, marching through the sand and clambering into Egypt.
It was not the first time the wall has been breached, but never before have so many flooded into Egypt. They left behind them the Gaza Strip, a small stretch of land that has slumped ever deeper into a humanitarian crisis after Israel imposed a closure of its crossings. Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said it showed the “level of desperation” of Gazans who, she said, “live under abhorrent conditions”.
Abdullah Aked walked back from Egypt carrying a box of newly bought cooking pots, a comparative bargain at Â£6 — around a quarter of what they would have cost him in Gaza. “We feel a little more free today. It’s a good thing for the Gazans to be able to breathe,” said Aked (36). “I know there is going to be more trouble ahead but in the end we need a political solution. Not a solution for just one or two days.”
No Israeli forces are deployed along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt and Egyptian authorities had decided not to resist the vast wave of people flooding into their country. However, some of those armed with luggage and plans to fly abroad from Cairo airport said they were eventually turned back by Egyptian soldiers for entering without visas.
Israel said on Wednesday it was up to Egypt to deal with the situation. “It is their responsibility to ensure that the border operates properly, in accordance with the signed agreements. Israel expects the Egyptians to solve the problem,” said Arye Mekel, spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry. “Obviously we are worried about the situation. It could potentially allow anybody to enter.”
Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in exile in Damascus, said his movement would work with Egypt and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the rival Fatah movement, to establish a new border arrangement. However, for now at least it seems the wall will remain open.
Back in Gaza, the crisis continued. There were still long power cuts, and a third of the population of 1,5-million had no access to drinking water. Rafik Maliha, the director of the strip’s sole power plant, warned he was preparing to stop production for the second time in a week.
Israel halted fuel shipments to the power plant, which supplies around a quarter of Gaza’s electricity, last Thursday, saying it was acting to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets into southern Israel. Israel eased the blockade slightly on Tuesday, allowing in some aid and 750Â 000 litres of industrial diesel. Another 180Â 000 litres were delivered on Wednesday morning. If no more fuel had arrived by Thursday the plant — whose tanks can hold 20-million litres of fuel — would begin to shut down the two turbines that were operating.
“There was a debate [on Wednesday] about whether to shut down,” said Maliha. “The situation is terrible. If there is no more fuel, or the fuel quantity is limited, then we have to shut down one unit and then the second unit.”
“We cannot plan, we cannot even think,” said Maliha. “We are running a power station that serves more than half a million people and it’s a very difficult situation for us.”
Back over the border, Nawal Sekar sat on her luggage in the back of a broken pick-up truck hoping it would eventually take her and her son and daughter south to Cairo. Her son Yassir (24) was injured in factional fighting between Fatah and Hamas last year and needed more treatment for his severely injured legs.
“We have a referral to a hospital in Cairo but we couldn’t get Yassir out of Gaza until today,” she said. “Because we came through the wall we don’t have stamps in our passport. We don’t know how we’re going to get to Cairo, we don’t know how we’re going to get back. But we have to try.” — Â