Witnesses Say Egyptians Close Last Gap in Gaza Border After 11 Days of Free Movement

Egyptian troops closed the last breach in Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday morning, ending 11 days of free movement for Palestinian residents of the blockaded territory, witnesses and Hamas security officials said.

The troops were allowing Gazans and Egyptians to cross the border to return to their homes on the other side but prevented any new cross-border movement, according to witnesses and Hamas security officials in the border town of Rafah.

Egyptian soldiers patrolled in armored personnel carriers and stood in sandbagged emplacements on nearby rooftops, and dozens of Gazans looked on as the Egyptians resealed the border, the Hamas security officials said. No violence was reported.

The Hamas officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. Israel issued no immediate comment on the closure.

Hamas militants blew up section of the Gaza-Egypt border wall on Jan. 23 in an attempt to end a seven-month blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel with Egypt's cooperation. The move allowed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to stock up on supplies in Egypt.

A senior Hamas leader said Saturday after meeting with Egyptian officials that Egypt would close the border in coordination with the militant group, which seized control of the territory in June.

But Mahmoud Zahar said the closure would be temporary while the Egyptians search for a way to reopen the border. Egyptian officials were not available for comment on the Hamas claims. It was not clear whether Egypt was considering the group's demand for a say in running the Egypt-Gaza border.

Any role for the Islamic militants on the border would be sure to anger the international community and Hamas' archrival, the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, because it would amount to tacit recognition of Hamas rule in Gaza.

Hamas' violent seizure control of the tiny seaside territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, left Abbas controlling only the West Bank.

Hamas thwarted repeated attempts by Egypt to reseal the frontier as Palestinians flooded over the border.

On Saturday, Egyptian security forces arrested two Palestinians carrying a bomb in el-Massoura, a village about 2.5 miles west of the border with Gaza, a Sinai security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. A police official in Cairo said the two had been trying to reach beach resorts in the southern Sinai.

On Friday, a Sinai intelligence official said Egyptian security forces were looking for four Palestinians who slipped into the country from Gaza and were suspected of planning suicide attacks against resorts. It was not clear if the two men arrested Saturday were those Egypt had been tracking.

At least 17 Palestinians have been arrested in the past days carrying weapons and explosives near the border and other remote parts of the Sinai desert.

Zahar said Egyptian officials told him they would restore order at the crossing.

"Egypt's message was very clear, that Sunday should be the day to put an end to this scene," Zahar told the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.

The Hamas leader, widely seen as the mastermind of Hamas' Gaza takeover, said the Islamic group would cooperate with Egypt in its efforts.

According to Zahar, Egypt agreed to coordinate with Hamas on some border issues and to enable thousands of Palestinians stuck in Egypt to head to third countries for which they have visas or residency permits.

In an interview with AP Television News, Zahar suggested the Egyptians planned to reopen the border after talks with European officials arriving in the region.

"Tomorrow they (the Egyptians) are going to start dialogue with the European people in order to make an end for our sanctions and to allow opening of the gates freely and without preconditions," he said.

The EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was expected to arrive in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials later Saturday. The international Mideast envoy, Tony Blair, was also planning a trip to the region in coming days to address the border standoff.

Hamas breached the border several days after Israel imposed a complete blockade on Gaza, with Egyptian backing, in response to a rocket barrage from Gaza on Israeli border towns. The blockade tightened the already severely restricted access to the territory that Israel and Egypt imposed after Hamas' Gaza takeover.

Earlier this week, Egypt and Abbas endorsed restoring a 2005 border arrangement in which European monitors were deployed on the Palestinian side to prevent smuggling of weapons and militants, and Israel watched traffic by closed-circuit TV.

Abbas has proposed sending loyalist security forces to the border, to get around the international boycott of Hamas and ensure the crossing is open.

Hamas has said it opposes the 2005 arrangement because it granted Israel a final say over when the Gaza-Egypt border is open. The EU monitors are based in Israel, and Israel in the past frequently asked the monitors to stay away, citing security reasons, in effect shutting down border operations.

Zahar suggested that Hamas was flexible about the extent of its role on the border, but wanted Israel and the EU to be excluded from running it.

"The crossing has to be open because it's an Egytian-Palestinian crossing," he told Al Jazeera. "There have been obstacles ... in the past due to Israeli intervention, and European Union and Israeli pressure. All of these contributed to the siege of the Palestinian people."

The head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he would like to see Gaza's economy cut from Israel, and instead receive fuel and electricity from Egypt.

"We have said from the days of our election campaign that we want to move toward economic disengagement from the Israeli occupation," Haniyeh told the pro-Hamas daily Palestine. "Egypt has a greater ability to meet the needs of Gaza."

Some Israeli officials believe that would be good for Israel.

Israel's Defense Ministry is drafting an official position on the idea, security officials said Sunday. Some in Israel's defense establishment support the idea of allowing Gaza to increase its dependence on Egypt, reducing Israel's responsibility for the impoverished and violent territory, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal internal ministry discussions.