Clashes erupt at Gaza-Egypt border

January 22, 2008 9:19:23 AM PST
Israel eased its siege of Gaza for a day on Tuesday, allowing in shipments of fuel and medicine. But tensions erupted over Egypt's closure of its Gaza border, with Palestinian protesters breaking through the crossing and clashing with Egyptian guards.Ten Egyptian police and about 60 protesters were hurt as protesters hurled stones at the Egyptians and Palestinian gunmen fired briefly in the air. Hundreds of protesters briefly broke through the border terminal, pushing back helmeted Egyptian riot police who fired in the air to try to contain the crowd.

Since Hamas violently took over Gaza in June, Egypt has joined Israel in severely restricting access to Gaza, largely keeping its border terminal closed out of concern about a spillover of Hamas-style militancy into its territory.

"Hosni Mubarak you are a coward, you are an agent for the Americans," protesters chanted, insulting the Egyptian president. "Gaza women will not be humiliated."

The clash came at the end of a protest by several thousand women carrying Hamas flags and calling for a lifting of the closure of Gaza by Israel last week in retaliation for increasing rocket attacks on border communities by Palestinian militants.

Despite Israel's easing of the restrictions, the militants fired 11 rockets toward Israel on Tuesday.

The closure cut off fuel supplies and Hamas shut down the Gaza Strip's only power plant on Sunday, cutting off electricity to about one-third of the territory's 1.5 million residents. Electricity was restored to much of Gaza City by evening.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided Monday to allow limited shipments of fuel and medicine to ease hardship after condemnation from humanitarian and rights groups. But at the same time, Barak warned he was prepared to hit Gaza hard to restore calm in Israeli towns.

International aid groups warned Monday they may have to suspend food distribution to hundreds of thousands of people by the end of the week because they lack truck fuel.

The sanctions have deepened hardship for Gazans, already largely cut off from the world since the Islamic militant Hamas seized control of the territory from the rival Fatah faction in June.

Gas stations remained closed Tuesday, and fewer cars were on the streets because of fuel shortages.

Hospitals kept running on generators during extensive power outages, and operations were largely unaffected. Most bakeries shut down, and long lines formed at those that remained open. A shipment of cooking gas sent in by Israel on Tuesday sold out in an hour.

Gaza City baker Haj Salman, 68, who uses wood to run his oven, did a booming business. Customers lined up to have home-made bread dough baked in his oven.

One of those waiting for his bread was 22-year-old Sami Othman, whose father, a taxi driver, has been idled by the fuel shortage. Othman said he felt the people of Gaza were being squeezed by the confrontation between Hamas and its rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.

"They are using us for fuel for their internal fighting and political conflicts," said Sami, who would not give his last name.

Electricity in Gaza City was gradually coming back on Tuesday, after Israel sent in 185,000 gallons of fuel, enough to run Gaza's power plant for two days.

In all, fuel for a week's worth of operations was to be delivered through Thursday. Israel and Egypt also supply electricity directly to other areas of Gaza, and power was not disrupted there in recent days.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the U.S. administration has spoken to Israeli officials "about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold." Israeli officials were receptive, she said, adding that she blames Hamas for situation.

Abbas said Tuesday he will not pull out of peace talks with Israel despite the blockade. Abbas has been under growing pressure at home to suspend the recently restarted U.S.-backed negotiations with Israel, which are to produce a peace deal in 2008.

"Halting contacts with Israel is useless," Abbas said in his first comment since the latest round of Israel-Hamas fighting erupted last week. "On the contrary, we should intensify our contacts and our meetings to stop the suffering of our people." Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, is not a party to the peace talks.

Abbas also offered to have his government take control of the Palestinian side of Gaza crossings. Israel's refusal to deal with Hamas officials contributed to its decision to severely restrict the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006.

Hamas has not commented on the idea, but Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, told The Associated Press on Tuesday the plan was not practical.

"It's a great idea but they (the Palestinians) can't implement it," he said. Rice said Tuesday the proposal is worth studying. If Abbas loyalists were posted at the crossings, it could mean a resumption of relatively unhindered border traffic, easing Gaza's isolation and international sanctions against Hamas.

The international Red Cross called Tuesday for Israel to lift the blockade and said aid must be allowed into the territory on a regular basis to prevent a complete collapse of health and sanitary services.

"Deliveries of essential humanitarian goods must be secured in the long run to prevent more hardship and to avoid the collapse of the already fragile infrastructure," said Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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AP reporters Steven Gutkin in Herzliya, Israel, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.


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