Egyptian Guards Seek to Stem Gaza Border Flow, Israel Suspends Aid Shipments

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Large shipments of cement, spare parts and fuel flowed from Egypt into Gaza across a wide-open border Thursday, a day after militants blew down the border wall and tens of thousands of locked-up Gazans streamed into Egypt for shopping and a whiff of freedom.

Egyptian border guards at first stood by as huge crowds surged into Egypt, but on Thursday tried to direct the increasingly chaotic traffic of pedestrians, donkey carts and bicycles.

Israel, meanwhile, said it would not send emergency shipments of fuel on Thursday, as it had initially promised earlier in the week. The fuel is needed to run Gaza City's power plant, which had shut down after Israel imposed a complete closure on Gaza last week, in response to rocket attacks.

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Israeli defense officials have said that as long as Gazans were getting supplies through Egypt, there was no need for Israel to send shipments.

The border breach has been a boon to Gaza's Hamas rulers, whose hold on the area was made more difficult by border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt. The closures, which were tightened after Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June, have led to severe shortages of cement, cigarette and other basic goods.

Hamas has seized the border breach — which was carefully planned, with militants weakening the metal wall with blowtorches about a month ago — to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions against the Islamic militants.

Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu suggested Thursday that Hamas would seek a role in a future on the Gaza-Egypt border. "An open border like this has no logic," he said. "We are studying the mechanism of having an official crossing point."

However, it appears unlikely Egypt will acquiesce. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been under intense public pressure at home in recent days to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade. However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants.

An Arab diplomat said Egypt told the U.S. it expects the Palestinians' exodus from Gaza to end by midday Thursday, but a senior U.S. official said Egypt has not been precise about when it will stop the flow.

Egyptian border guards were patrolling access roads to the border Thursday, directing some traffic away from the frontier fence. Police in helmets and with sniffer dogs used batons to beat the hoods of private cars and pickup trucks that massed at the border to carry Palestinians further into Egyptian territory.

Still, cargo shipments across the border picked up Thursday, using the back-to-back system. Trucks and donkey carts pulled up to the Egyptian side, the goods were unloaded and carried across to the Gazan side were they were put in waiting trucks.

Gaza businessman Abu Omar Shurafa received a shipment of 100 tons of cement, seizing an opportunity to stock up before the border closes again. "Everyone is exerting all efforts to stock the reserves for six to seven months. We have to find a way to continue living," he said.

Still, he was also hopeful that this could be the beginning of a new arrangement. "A solution has to be like this," he said, referring to the flow of goods from Egypt.

Huge crowds of Gazans crossed into Egypt again, as they did on Wednesday. Some just wanted to get out of Gaza, even for a few hours.

"We just want freedom," said Adel Tildani, who was bringing his mother-in-law from Egypt into Gaza to meet grandchildren she had never seen before. "I don't need to buy anything. Freedom is more important."

Hamdi al-Masri returned from Egypt to Gaza with several canisters of diesel fuel. He had walked more than 10 kilometers (six miles) to reach an Egyptian town where fuel was not sold out.

Egyptian Ahmed Talaat, 23, crossed into Gaza to visit a sister he had not seen in six years. The town of Rafah was divided in two when Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, and crossing the border has become increasingly difficult over the years.

Official reaction to the border events ranged from dismay to embarrassment to outright anger.

Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, expressed concern that militants and weapons might be entering Gaza to bolster rocket launchings toward Israel, and said responsibility for restoring order lies with Egypt. Israel had imposed the blockade in response to a spike in rocket attacks that came after an especially deadly raid against Gaza militants last week.

The United States expressed concern about the border breach. Hamas called on its bitter rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, to help come up with new arrangements for Gaza's crossings. And Egypt's leader said he had no choice but to let in the beleaguered Palestinians.

In a reminder of the violence that lead to the breach, Israeli tanks raided the northern Gaza Strip overnight and razed an area where militants launch rockets, the army said. Troops shot a Palestinian who fired an anti-tank missile at the forces, the army spokesman said. Israeli radio stations said the man was killed. Palestinian medics could not immediately reach the area to ascertain the man's condition.

The chain of border events began before dawn Wednesday when masked gunmen used 17 explosive charges to tear down the border wall — erected in 2001 by Israel when it controlled Gaza.

After news of the breach spread, people across Gaza boarded buses and piled into rickety pickup trucks heading for Egypt. It was a rare chance to escape Gaza's isolation.

By nightfall Wednesday, more than 1,000 Gazans reached El-Arish, an Egyptian town about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Rafah, walking the streets and shopping in stores that stayed open late.

Egyptian security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to talk to the media, said that Palestinians were not being allowed to travel further south than El-Arish. Egypt bused riot police into the area.