By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 18, 2007
RAFAH, Egypt, June 17 -- All but sealed off by Egypt and Israel, Gaza presented an intensifying security concern to its neighbors and a fast-approaching humanitarian crisis Sunday, three days after its takeover by Hamas.
Palestinian boys spilled over the rusted metal fence at Gaza's unguarded border to fly kites in the no man's land between Gaza and Egypt. Palestinian security forces, dominated by the Fatah movement, fled their border posts last week in the course of their rout by Hamas fighters.
Egyptian soldiers posted every 100 feet or so have effectively served on border duty for both sides of the frontier in the first days of Hamas's administration. The Egyptians chucked rocks at Palestinian boys who clung to the barbed wire and low concrete walls on the Egyptian side of the border at Salaheldin, a long-closed crossing 1 1/2 miles from the main Rafah transit point between Gaza and Egypt.
"The Jews have left us, but now we're fighting each other over power," Bahaa Abogazar, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, shouted through the barbed wire.
Egyptians who live in the border area said Hamas fighters showed up at the wall briefly on Friday, rocket launchers on their shoulders, and surveyed the southern border of their new mini-state.
Fighters in Gaza -- it wasn't clear from which faction, residents and soldiers said -- tried to blow a hole through the border wall earlier in the week. Hamas fighters pursuing Fatah fighters fired toward Egyptian soldiers Friday, an Egyptian border soldier in a fraying green uniform said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the events.
For decades, smugglers crawling on their hands and knees have hauled weapons through border tunnels. The Egyptian soldier said Saturday that smuggling has surged since Hamas's takeover of Gaza, and that more than 20 smugglers were caught in the previous three days.
The soldier pointed to a concrete house behind him. Two other Egyptian soldiers were positioned near a hole inside, he said, ready to catch anyone who emerged from the tunnel that connects Gaza to Egypt's Sinai.
"Hamas does not have time for the borders. Hamas is looking for traitors" in Gaza, an Egyptian merchant, Mahmoud al-Shaer, said as he scooped dried spices from plastic sacks at his shop at the border.
Egypt closed the border with Gaza last week when the fighting started. European Union monitors have suspended oversight at the frontier since Thursday because of security concerns. Egyptian officials said the decision to reopen Gaza's border would be made in consultation with the European Union and Israel.
Israel has largely closed Gaza's other land borders since Hamas took over and has kept close watch of Gaza's Mediterranean shores.
Gaza residents "are in a cage, and the door is closed," wailed Samira Abou Khanazsh, 47, who makes a living buying cheap goods in Egypt and selling them back home in Gaza.
She and hundreds of other poor Gazans were trapped on the Egyptian side of the sealed border when the fighting escalated last week and have been sleeping in a field, in empty houses and on the floor and dirt courtyard of a cafe since then.
The control of Gaza by Hamas, a militant organization that is hostile to its neighbors and embraces a strict interpretation of Islam, is an unwelcome development for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Fearing the popularity of Islamic movements, Mubarak's administration overhauled election laws this year and arrested hundreds of opposition figures in a drive to neutralize Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political and social movement.
With U.S. support, the Egyptian government in recent months has stepped up training of Fatah fighters in Egypt.
An Egyptian Interior Ministry official at the Rafah crossing played down the silence reigning over the Gaza side of the border Sunday, with shooting stilled and Gaza's fearful residents staying indoors. "Let them stay under siege a few more days and then you'll see Hamas's response," said the official, who did not give his name.
Calls to an Egyptian government spokesman went unanswered Sunday.
A spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry said by telephone that his country feared that more "weapons, support and know-how" would move across the Gaza-Egypt border and through the tunnels under it now that Hamas was in control of Gaza.
"The entire international community is digesting this new Hamas administration in Gaza, this new, unfortunate development," said Mark Regev, the spokesman.
Any decision on reopening the borders probably would wait until consultations with the Bush administration and European foreign ministers early this week, Regev indicated.
In cellphone calls, some Gaza residents sought to reassure family members stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.
Fatima Mohammed called her husband here and said that Hamas fighters in the town of Khan Younis were going house-to-house collecting weapons. The move had calmed Gaza's chronic gunplay, leaving two feuding families there to fight with sticks instead of AK-47s, she said.
"Now, there is rule of law," Mohammed told a reporter.
Other residents were more worried. Markets had reopened in Gaza after the fighting, residents said by telephone, but shelves were emptying quickly, even though the price of staples such as flour had more than quadrupled since last week.
"In five days minimum, Gaza will starve," said Samir Abou Singher, a Palestinian Authority security officer, who had called the home of a relative who lives near Rafah. Singher, who recently returned from more than two months of training in Egypt, said he had remained in his house since then, as Hamas took over.
"In two days time, if there is no food or medicine in Gaza, all the Palestinian people will head to the border with Egypt,'' Singher warned.
Sami Abu Zouhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said Hamas would feed Gaza's people, somehow.
"We are working on maintaining order and managing the daily life of Gaza," Zouhri said. "No one can starve the people of Gaza. We are confident that we will succeed in overcoming the siege."
Special correspondent Nora Younis contributed to this report.