RAFAH, Egypt – Egyptian troops allowed elated Palestinians to flood across the border from Gaza (search) for a second day Tuesday, heightening Israeli concerns that the crossing will become more porous and allow weapons to make their way to militants.
But Palestinian and Egyptian commanders decided to close the Gaza-Egypt border by Wednesday evening, said Jamal Kaed, the Palestinian security commander of southern Gaza — effectively allowing one more day for crossings.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said in a televised speech later Tuesday that he would take immediate steps to impose order in chaotic Gaza. Security forces have failed to prevent scavenging and looting of abandoned Israeli settlements, including key greenhouses that were bought for the Palestinians by Jewish donors for $14 million.
"We have one law for everyone and no one is above the law. We are not going to tolerate chaos after today," Abbas said, although he did not say how his security forces would improve their performance. As Abbas spoke, hundreds of Hamas (search) gunmen paraded through the streets of the nearby Jebaliya refugee camp.
Gazans, long barred by Israeli border guards from entering Egypt, have gone on a shopping spree in Egyptian towns since the Israeli withdrawal, hauling home suitcases and boxes full of cheap cigarettes, food, fish and other goods.
Others searched out relatives they haven't seen for years in Rafah, which is divided in two by the border. Some Gazans went as far as el-Arish, 24 miles west of Rafah, and were seen dining at seaside restaurants in the Mediterranean town.
Israeli forces withdrew from the border early Monday, ending their 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip. Under a deal with Israel, Egypt deployed hundreds of troops to guard the border and prevent smuggling into Gaza.
But thousands of Palestinians clambered over the walls along the border Monday and continued to move back and forth freely Tuesday. Egyptian forces said they were temporarily opening the frontier to allow the Palestinians to celebrate and reunite with relatives.
Kaed said Palestinian security forces will start preparations to close the crossing by Wednesday evening, setting up roadblocks near the border to prevent cars from reaching the area. A Palestinian bulldozer tried to fill a gap in the high wall that Gazans had been slipping through.
But closing off all the side routes that Palestinians have found in the past two days may prove difficult. Moreover, Gazans and Egyptians went back and forth without records, making it ever harder to sort out who belongs on what side of the border.
Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Egypt's failure to stop the border crossings was a cause of concern.
"One would like to hope that what happened there was just a one-time failure by the Egyptian troops to do what is expected of them. But if this continues Israel will have to ask the multinational force (in the Sinai) to be a great deal more active in supervising the Egyptian compliance in the commitment it made with Israel," he said.
"The great danger is that both people and arms could be smuggled under the unwatchful eyes of the Egyptians — that was the whole purpose of coming to this agreement," Shoval said.
Still, another Israeli official said that while Israel has formally presented its concerns to the Egyptians, "there is an understanding that today is the first day of a new reality and that the Egyptians have not yet fully deployed their forces in the area." The official spoke on condition of anonymity, because the contacts between Israel and Egypt are confidential.
At least one Rafah resident said that amid the chaos, some weapons have exchanged hands and were making it to the Palestinian side, but there was no official confirmation.
Egypt has so far deployed several hundred of the 750 troops it agreed to station at the border. The full contingent is expected to arrive within about a week.
In Gaza, Palestinian police blocked off abandoned Jewish settlements and chased after scavengers in a first attempt to impose order after the Israeli pullout, but they failed to halt looting of the area's prized greenhouses.
The 3,000 to 4,000 greenhouses, left behind by Israel as part of a deal brokered by international mediators, are a centerpiece of Palestinian plans for rebuilding Gaza after 38 years of Israeli occupation. The Palestinian Authority hopes the high-tech greenhouses will provide jobs and export income for Gaza's shattered economy.
The streets on the Egyptian side of Rafah were full of Palestinians, shopping and greeting relatives. Some Palestinians who entered Monday spent the night. Some Egyptians were also crossing into Gaza, taking goods to sell or just out of curiosity.
"Things are cheap here, not like back home," said a 23-year-old Palestinian, who would identify herself only as Nasreen, as she bought 10 plastic tables from a Rafah shop to take back to Gaza.
"The town is seeing an economic prosperity it hasn't witnessed in 30 years," said the shopowner, Abdel Hadi Khalil. "The people are very happy ... this helped boost their morale."
On one Rafah street, Thoraya Ismail — an Egyptian married to a Palestinian — wept as she hugged her daughters, whom she hasn't seen in seven years and who crossed over from Gaza. She saw her two toddler grandchildren for the first time.
"Thank God," she said between sobs. "They were preventing us from crossing into the Palestinian side because I'm Egyptian."
On Tuesday, a group of Egyptian police formed a human chain in front of Saladin gate to try to regulate the flow of Egyptians and Palestinians wanting to cross to the Palestinian side. Men and women waited in the scorching sun for the police to allow them through in small groups. Others took back roads to cross the border.
Four Palestinians died Monday during the chaos, one shot by Egyptian troops and three others who drowned in the sea, Palestinian officials said. An Egyptian presidential spokesman, Suleiman Awad, denied that the Palestinian was killed by Egyptian fire but did not say how the death occurred.
Abbas raised a Palestinian flag over the Rafah border crossing Monday evening to mark the end of the Israeli military presence, but he also denounced the chaos at the border.
"It is absolutely unacceptable for the border to be stormed," Abbas said. "We must resolve this problem in a civilized manner."
Keeping order was seen as a first test for the Palestinian Authority's rule over Gaza.