RAFAH, Egypt – Egyptian security officials prevented car traffic from Gaza entering the country but still allowed Palestinians to come in on foot Thursday.
As Egypt-planned talks with rival Palestinian factions crumbled, Gazans worried that Egypt, frustrated with no solution in view to the border crisis, will soon seal the breached boundary.
Empty stores, seas of mud and torrential rains kept most Palestinians away from the increasingly grim surroundings of divided Rafah's Egyptian side and only a few dozen braved the foul weather Thursday to cross the border.
A tight security cordon remained in place around the town to keep Palestinians from entering into the rest of Egypt, though a security officials announced that at least 15 Palestinians have been caught over the past few days in the nearby town of El-Arish and in other remote parts of the Sinai desert carrying weapons and explosives.
The arrests embody Egyptian fears that some of the strife and radicalism in Gaza may leak into Egypt across the open border, though they hesitate to close the frontier outright in fear of the outcry over the plight of Palestinians blockaded inside.
There were definite signs by Thursday, however, that Egyptian patience with the situation was wearing thin. In the wind-swept no man's land in the divided town of Rafah, Egyptian guards used sticks to beat the trunk of a white pickup with empty cooking gas canisters that tried to drive it into Egypt.
A young bearded man, likely from Hamas' security, in a raincoat and with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, said the militia was told Wednesday night not to let Palestinians into Egypt anymore.
Gazans were increasingly concerned the shopping bonanza would soon be over and the border resealed.
"What is happening," a veiled Palestinian woman, Salima, in mid-50s, asked the Egyptian guards. They ignored her but one slightly nodded. "When are you going to close the border?" she asked.
Even the Egyptian shopkeepers who reaped such a windfall profit when Hamas blew up the border and sent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streaming across in a frenzied shopping spree, expressed impatience with the situation.
They say many of the Palestinians have stolen from them and want the border reclosed to stem the tide. Egyptian security has also prevented trucks from entering Rafah to resupply the frustrated shopkeepers stores.
Far away in Cairo, meanwhile, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to negotiate some sort of role for the Islamist movement on the border — something opposed by not just their rivals in the Palestinian government but by the international community.
Officials familiar with the talks say Hamas was floating ideas for a new border monitoring system involving other Arab nations rather than the 2005 international agreement with Israeli and EU monitors.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to deal with Hamas unless they relinquished control of the Gaza Strip as well as international opposition to a larger role for the Islamist organization suggests a compromise will be elusive, despite Egypt's hope to sort out the situation.
Israel has warned its citizens against visiting the beach resorts of Sinai, the vast desert peninsula between the Gaza border and Cairo.