Egypt boosts security to stem tide of Palestinians

Egypt boosted security around the border town of Rafah on Tuesday and resealed parts of the barrier blasted open a week ago as it tried to control the flow of people in and out of the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian forces strung barbed wire along some of the gaps between two gates leading into the Palestinian territory, while riot police were deployed on roads from Rafah to the border crossings.

A security force of about 20 000 has been deployed in the north of the Sinai peninsula since Saturday, a security source said.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have swarmed into Egypt since militants blew holes in the border wall on January 22 after a devastating Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run territory cut vital fuel and aid supplies.

Amid the piecemeal moves to control the border, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and a delegation from the rival Islamist movement, Hamas, were to travel to Cairo on Wednesday for crisis talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The Hamas delegation will be headed by hardliner Mahmud Zahar, the most influential chief in Gaza, who has had two sons killed in Israeli air strikes, most recently on January 15.

A Hamas official said the team was prepared to meet Abbas, who has previously ruled out dialogue with the Islamists unless they relinquish their control of the Gaza Strip.

Israel welcomed the possibility of an Abbas-Mubarak deal on retaking control of the border between Egypt and Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule since its fighters routed forces loyal to the Palestinian president in June.

“If Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Mubarak reach some kind of understanding on sharing control over the Rafah crossing, Israel will certainly not oppose such an arrangement,” a senior Israeli official said.

On Monday, United States President George Bush, whose administration considers Hamas a terrorist group, had a blunt message for Palestinians suffering from the prolonged Israeli blockade.

“Look what Hamas has brought you,” he told ABC News Radio in his first public remarks on the crisis since Israel’s punitive lockdown of the territory. “They’re delivering you misery.”

The White House has described Israel’s blockade of Gaza—where most of its 1,5-million population rely on outside aid—as an act of justifiable self-defence in the face of rocket attacks from the territory into Israel.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered support for Abbas—whose power base has been restricted to the West Bank since Hamas seized Gaza—to deploy security forces along the border.

An Egyptian security source said on Monday that the authorities had turned back about 3 000 Palestinians trying to reach Cairo and other cities since the border was breached.

Road blocks have been set up across the Sinai, particularly on the roads leading out of the peninsula.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit telephoned Rice and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana to express Egypt’s “determination to take gradual control of the border”, his ministry said.

Abul Gheit said Egypt would like to “restore the border situation to an acceptable one” and called on Israel to stop the “collective punishment” of the Gaza Strip’s civilian population.

In Rafah, shops were running out of stocks after Egypt started blocking new supplies being trucked in from Cairo on Sunday.

“We are mostly missing vaccinations for the children, which ran out on the first day,” said one pharmacist in Rafah. “We have ordered a shipment but authorities have blocked it at the Peace Bridge,” which leads into the Sinai.

Hamas member of Parliament Salah al-Bardawil said the Islamist group wanted new arrangements at the Gaza-Egypt border to replace a 2005 agreement Abbas reached with Israel, under which the Rafah crossing was supervised by European Union monitors and cameras allowing Israel to see those passing through.

But Prime Minister Salam Fayyad made clear that the Palestinian leadership would oppose any attempt by Hamas to revise the 2005 arrangements.—AFP

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