By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 4, 2008
GAZA CITY, Feb. 3 -- Egyptian construction workers in blue hard hats rolled barbed wire across the last breaches of the Gaza Strip's border wall with Egypt on Sunday, reasserting Egyptian control of the frontier after Palestinian guerrillas used explosives and machinery to knock down the barrier.
Egyptian and Palestinian forces had been signaling for days that the border would be sealed again, slowly choking off access for the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who had sought to leave the strip after the walls fell 11 days ago. This weekend, milling crowds of Gaza traders only watched, without throwing stones or shouting, as Egyptian construction workers and soldiers hoisted concrete blocks and rolled out barbed wire over the last gaps in the wall.
Security officials from Hamas, the armed Palestinian movement that has controlled Gaza since June, worked alongside Egyptian officials Sunday to turn back Gazans seeking to enter Egypt, witnesses said. Egypt allowed Gaza residents stuck in Egypt, and Egyptians in Gaza, to cross the border and return home.
The border crisis began late last month when Israel sealed entry points from Israel into Gaza. Israeli officials said they were acting in response to guerrilla rocket attacks from Gaza toward southern Israel.
For 4 1/2 days in late January, the Israeli embargo cut off all shipments of food, fuel and other goods for Gaza's 1.5 million people. The blockade led to the shutdown of Gaza's power plant, cutting electricity to about 500,000 people.
Gaza's land borders are entirely controlled by its neighbors, Egypt and Israel. Both countries have sharply limited traffic in and out since June, when Hamas took power in the strip, forcing the more moderate Fatah movement to retreat to the West Bank. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Egypt, a diplomatic ally of both countries, has tried to distance itself from Hamas without appearing to be forcing Palestinians, fellow Arabs, back under the Israeli siege
Militant Palestinians effectively ended the Israeli blockade Jan. 23, using explosives and a bulldozer to knock down parts of the metal and concrete walls separating Gaza from Egypt. The United Nations estimated that about half of Gaza's population poured into Egyptian border towns in the first few days, seeking goods that had become scarce under the Israeli blockade.
Hamas initially denied responsibility for blowing up the border wall. By this weekend, however, Hamas officials were more openly associating themselves with the breach. Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to the Hamas government in Gaza, described destruction of the wall as a "moral victory."
But with Egypt's sealing of the wall on Sunday, the blockade of Gaza appeared to be settling in again. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, tried Saturday to soften the coming news of the closing, telling Gazans that medical patients and students would still be allowed to leave the strip. Hamas also would keep up negotiations with Egypt on allowing regular traffic across the border, Zahar said.
Speaking to Gaza residents, Hamas officials have projected defiance.
"The people of Palestine will not go back to their cage," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said at a rally Friday. "We broke the handcuffs, and we will break the siege."
In reality, however, Hamas leaders and security officials have been careful to appease Egypt over the border breach.
On Saturday, Zahar said he had apologized to Egyptian officials for incidents over the past two weeks in which Palestinian crowds threw stones at Egyptian border guards.
Aid officials estimate that Gaza residents spent more than $100 million in the first few days of the breach on goods that became lacking in Gaza under the tightening Israeli restrictions.
Many Palestinians said they had expended their savings in the shopping spree. Egyptian traders in border towns often jacked up prices to take advantage of the surge in business.
"The whole thing was for nothing," Gaza resident Huwaida al-Hams said this weekend, after the women of her family sold some of their gold jewelry to buy cheese, milk and a few other goods in Egypt.
"They took our money, and we have nothing," Hams said.