RAFAH, Egypt – Egyptian forces and Hamas militants built a chain-link fence across one of the Gaza border breaches Monday in a sign that the six-day open border policy may be ending soon.
But in Cairo, Arab governments were forceful in their opposition to any future Hamas control over the frontier.
Egypt and the foreign ministers of the Arab League have firmly backed the Palestinian government in its power struggle against Hamas and called for a return to a 2005 international border monitoring agreement that excludes the Islamist organization from any kind of role.
"They (Hamas) should not interfere. They should just simply get out of the way and allow this to happen," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told reporters after returning from Cairo and trumpeting the international support for his government to control the crossing.
In Rafah itself, however, it was Hamas forces that were very much in control, working closely with Egyptian border guards and riot police to seal one of the three breaches, with barbed wire and a chain-link fence, and organize traffic at the other two.
"There has been continuous and direct cooperation with Egyptian security officials over the last couple of days," said a bearded Hamas security official dressed in blue camouflage and sporting an assault rifle. "They asked us to only allow trucks to enter and not civilian cars to make the operation as orderly as possible."
On the sixth day since Gaza militants blew holes in the wall dividing the border town of Rafah and precipitating an avalanche of Palestinians, traffic was still chaotic as the shopping spree continued.
The Egyptians deployed some hundred helmeted riot police armed with shields and batons at the two remaining openings Monday, suggesting that the cross-border free-for-all may soon come to an end.
"Egypt intends to gradually regain control of its border with Gaza and bring the situation back to an acceptable form," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in a message to European countries and the United States.
Aboul Gheit told the Europeans and Americans it was important Israel cooperate with efforts to have the Palestinian Authority deploy to control Rafah and have EU monitors return.
In Washington, the State Department said it was critical to get the border under control while addressing both the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and Israel's legitimate right to defend itself. Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's call last week for creative thinking to resolve the crisis — including possibly allowing the Palestinian Authority to have a role in policing the border — "still stood."
For their part, officials from the EU expressed a willingness to resume their monitoring role under the 2005 agreement, but only if it was under Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas control.
Hamas, however, insists on having a say in the administration of the border, the opening of which has given it a tremendous lift among inhabitants of Gaza who have been sealed off from the outside world for the past two years.
Aboul Gheit's comments favoring a return to the previous status angered Hamas, whose spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri late Monday called the old arrangement "an international Israeli conspiracy" and warning that the Gazans will not let the border close again.
"Hamas affirms that the time of (Israeli) siege is over, and it will not allow any party to bring back our people to the cage," he said. About Israelis, he said: "Let them come back. They will see death from our people."
Taher Nunu, another Hamas government spokesman, earlier said in response to the Palestinian Authority's comments that "no one can exclude the (Hamas) government here from the crossing arrangements or any other issue. This is the legitimate government."
Some form of agreement on who controls the border may come on Wednesday when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a Hamas delegation will hold separate meetings with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
In Gaza City, meanwhile, a 150 young children dressed in white death shrouds marked with the flags of Arab countries marched through the streets calling on the Arab League to lift the blockade on the strip. "Siege
death, help Gaza children live a normal life," stated their banners.
With much of the Arab world expressing deep sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians, reclosing the borders without some kind of new system allowing the flow of goods and people would be very damaging for the Egyptian government.
Salima al-Masri, a fully veiled shop owner on the Egyptian side, whose empty shelves attest to what a windfall the sudden opening has been to impoverished border town, said that whatever happens, the border cannot be closed again.
"The only solution for this whole predicament is to announce the reopening of the border crossing and that will get rid of this chaos," she said.