Desperate Palestinians crash through border

January 23, 2008 7:45:02 AM PST
Palestinian militants blew up sections of the security fence between Gaza and Egypt overnight, triggering a mass exodus as thousands of refugees crossed into Egypt in search of food and supplies. Blinding flashes and loud explosions could be seen and heard in the town of Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

When dawn broke, thousands of ordinary Palestinians started flooding across the border. They went in search of supplies. Everything from food, to bags of cement, cartons of cigarettes and gasoline. Everything that has been in such short supply since the Israelis imposed their blockade of Gaza after Hamas took control in June.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said this morning; "The developments on the border are a natural development of the anger and frustration, which Palestinians have been suffering due to the suffocating blockade."

Since Friday, that blockade has become even tighter, with food and fuel for lighting and heating running low. Palestinians and international aid agencies have complained of an impending humanitarian disaster.

Tuesday, Israel relented to growing international criticism of its policy and allowed in limited supplies of fuel. Tuesday afternoon the Gaza Strip's only power station went back on line after it closed down Sunday, plunging 600,000 Palestinians into darkness.

Also Tuesday there was an orchestrated demonstration by Hamas supporters at the border crossing at Rafah. It turned violent as Egyptian security forces tried to prevent protesters from crossing the border. Dozens of people, mainly women were injured in the clashes.

Tuesday night Palestinian militants took matters into their own hands and this morning Egyptian security forces stood by while the thousands of Palestinians walked across the border.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said today that he ultimately ordered his troops to allow Palestinians to cross into Egypt because they were starving, The Associated Press reported.

"I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons," he said.

Under the terms of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the number and type of Egyptian troops allowed to patrol the border is limited. The Egyptian leadership is treading carefully between its obligations to Israel and widespread Arab pressure to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The Israeli government has long complained about smuggling across the border. It has warned that Palestinian militants have been able to bring in explosives and more sophisticated weapons, while it has accused Egyptian authorities of not doing enough to stop the smugglers.

Today with most of that border now completely destroyed there will be renewed concerns about who and what is being brought into Gaza. The Israelis are already warning that militants unable to enter Gaza for months have used today's dramatic developments to slip back in.

"We expect the Egyptians to solve the problem. Obviously we are worried about the situation. It could potentially allow anybody to enter," said Aryeh Mekel, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Palestinian sources in Gaza tell ABC News that roads to Rafah from all other parts of Gaza are choked with traffic. Cars and trucks filled with Palestinians are desperate to cross the border before the Egyptians try and close it.