By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 24, 2008
RAFAH, Gaza Strip, Jan. 23 -- Gunmen destroyed vast sections of the seven-mile-long barricade that divides the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Wednesday, allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians to stream across the border and revel in a day away from a territory where Israeli restrictions have stifled the economy and caused blackouts and food shortages.
Jubilant Gazans flooded unhindered into Egypt, then hauled back purchases ranging from cigarettes and diesel fuel to goats, cows and camels. Other Palestinians walked for miles along Egyptian roads until their enthusiasm subsided and they sank, exhausted, onto curbs to rest.
"We were not able to go out!" Amial Tarazi, a 28-year-old office worker in Gaza City, said after clambering over broken stubs of the border wall in heels and a dress. She stepped into Egypt alongside two co-workers who had scaled the rubble in jackets and ties.
"We don't care about buying anything," Tarazi said. "We just wanted to see Egypt. We just wanted to get out."
Since the armed Hamas movement took control of Gaza last June, Israel and Egypt have all but sealed off the crossings that allow Gazans to travel and trade. On Friday, Israel began imposing an even stricter blockade on the territory of 1.5 million people to press Hamas to bring a halt to steady Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into southern Israel.
Wednesday's breach of the wall forced Israel and Egypt to weigh the security implications of a suddenly porous boundary. Hamas members joined the crowds crossing the border as Egyptian guards glowered but did not interfere.
Gazans credited Hamas with opening the wall, although the movement did not openly assert responsibility. Hamas officials told reporters that 17 explosions had destroyed parts of the barricade, in some instances taking down sections hundreds of yards long.
The extent of Hamas's control over the territory and the border area made it unlikely that another group could have carried out the breach.
In recent days Gazans have expressed increasing resentment toward Hamas for provoking the blockade, which led to power blackouts, water cutoffs and food shortages, but the opening of the wall boosted the movement's image.
Sharuk Abou Jazur, 12, in pink clothing and pigtails, skipped back toward Gaza with plastic bags crammed full of oranges from Egypt.
"The siege is over! It was Hamas's people who freed us," she said.
The breaking of the wall began about 2 a.m. Wednesday. Residents of the border town of Rafah said they awoke to the sound of explosions.
The blasts snapped concrete barriers and sheared through rusted metal fences. By daybreak, walls lay toppled, felled by men using heavy machinery. Miles of the barricade lay in ruins.
In Gaza City, an hour from the border, Manal Abu Shamalla, 37, answered her cellphone at 6:30 a.m.
"The way is open! Come!" her friends urged her, she said.
Her mother lives in Cairo, but because Abu Shamalla has not been able to obtain from Israel the travel documents she needs to cross the border, she has not seen her mother in 10 years, she said.
Abu Shamalla and her husband filled the tank of their car, using the last of the generator fuel they had saved to power the house during blackouts. She bundled her three children into winter coats and raced with thousands of other Gazans to the border.
By midday, the family was making its way among the Palestinians streaming sidewalk-to-sidewalk through the dirt streets of the Egyptian side of Rafah, which is split by the border wall. With thousands more Gazans arriving each hour, all with the hope of pushing deeper into Egypt, Abu Shamalla's family could find no taxis to take them to her mother, and their spirits flagged.
"We only brought milk for the baby," she said, rocking her 3-month-old in her arms on a street corner.
Gaza City's men piled onto flatbed trucks to rush to the border. City streets quickly emptied of operable cars. Desperate men clustered at intersections. "Where are you going?" they shouted at passersby, hoping for rides. "Rafah?"
At the border, fathers handed toddlers over sections of the wall, so whole families could have reunions in Egypt with relatives kept out of Gaza for years by border restrictions. A housewife in a wool coat and carrying a large purse struggled atop one section of the wall, unable to heft herself over but peeling off the fingers of those who tried to pull themselves up and climb past her.
Along one teeming road in the Egyptian part of Rafah, a Hamas security official who had been stranded on Egypt's side of the border since June -- fearing arrest by Israel during a crossing if he tried to return -- met his mother and sisters in the surging crowd. "Eight months I haven't seen him!" his mother exclaimed after a flurry of hugging and kissing.
The man excused himself for not talking. "I'm on the wanted list," he explained.
Israel accuses Egypt, increasingly sharply, of allowing smugglers to bring arms and explosives into Gaza. It was clear Wednesday that contraband and gunmen could cross the border that day with little chance of being stopped.
Agreements between Egypt and Israel restrict the number of Egyptian guards at the border to a few hundred. Seven or eight Egyptian border guards stood lined up along one stretch of no man's land, which was thick with milling Palestinians and livestock.
The Egyptian guards watched but did not move. "Don't speak to us! Don't even look at us!" one Egyptian officer shouted after someone in the crowd moved toward them.
Overwhelmed by the masses of Palestinians filling Egyptian Rafah's streets and squares, many merchants shuttered their shops and retreated to their windows and rooftops. In an orchard, an old man and his daughter swung broken sticks at adults and children who were boldly walking away, arms laden with oranges.
"When people are under pressure like they are in Gaza, of course they're going to explode," said Abu Kamal, a resident of Egyptian Rafah who would give only his nickname. From atop his concrete-block house, he and his daughters watched the crowds below. Abu Kamal had opened his bicycle repair shop Wednesday morning, only to close a few minutes later, after pushing out the Palestinians who had crowded in.
"Where are these people going to sleep?" he mused, watching. "At the end of the day, there's not going to be a thing left to eat in Rafah."
Egypt appeared to be stopping the Palestinians at El Arish, a city an hour by car from the border.
But no vehicles could cross the border, and few people could reach that far on foot. At points along the downed border walls, the streams of Palestinians heading back to Gaza were thicker than the throngs of Palestinians coming out.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told reporters that his border guards originally had forced back the Gazans on Tuesday.
"But today a great number of them came back because the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege," he said. "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."
In Jerusalem, a Defense Ministry spokesman, Shlomo Dror, said that "the focus is on Egypt" and that Israel was watching to see how Egypt handled the crisis. Hamas's apparent execution of a well-orchestrated, large-scale breach of the wall reflected badly on Egyptian border security, he said.
"From what I have seen, it's not going to be very easy to repair the wall," he said.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said from exile in Syria that the movement was willing to work out a new border arrangement with Egypt and Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, urged immediate talks with Fatah and Egypt on the topic.
Ashraf Ajrami, a cabinet minister in the West Bank, rejected Hamas's proposals Wednesday. "Everything Haniyeh is saying is simply to exploit this situation to win political gains," Ajrami told reporters.
The Palestinian Authority accuses Hamas of endangering the Palestinian goal of a unified state by administering Gaza on its own.