'Dear Palestinian Brothers . . . Please Return to Gaza'

Tens of thousands of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip crossed into Egypt on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008, after masked gunmen blasted through a border wall.
By Nora Younis and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 26, 2008

RAFAH, Egypt, Jan. 25 -- Throngs of Palestinians fought off Egyptian security forces trying to drive them back behind the breached border walls of the Gaza Strip on Friday, thwarting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's efforts to end the Palestinian exodus from Gaza as protests on their behalf grew across the Arab world.

The standoff threatened to bring the armed Hamas movement that governs Gaza into open confrontation with Mubarak's administration. Hamas officials supported the Palestinians' refusal to be forced back into Gaza, a cramped slice of coast inhabited by 1.5 million people.

By some witness accounts, Hamas members used a bulldozer to break a new hole late Friday in the walls separating Egypt and Gaza. Other witnesses described the drivers only as masked men.

Even as they defied the Egyptian government, Palestinian civilians and Hamas officials also appealed to it, saying that pushing Palestinans back into Gaza would subject them to an Israeli siege. Israel has virtually sealed the crossings into and out of Gaza since June, when Hamas, which the Jewish state considers a terrorist organization, took control of the strip by force.

"There is no ability by anyone to prevent the people from moving en masse to these openings," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. He urged Egypt "to appreciate the Palestinian need for food and fuel and medicine for the people."

The Palestinians began pouring into the Sinai early Wednesday after gunmen used explosives and machinery to topple much of the seven-mile-long barricade between Egypt and Gaza. Five days earlier, Israel had stopped most deliveries of fuel and food to the strip in response to a spike in rocket attacks from there targeting southern Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have poured out since the wall fell, reveling in their escape from the Israeli restrictions, which had caused power blackouts and shortages of food and medicine. Palestinians picked store shelves bare in Egyptian border towns. On Friday, some of them used a forklift to hoist a newly bought Egyptian camel over the broken wall into Gaza.

"If they close the border, we will stay in Egypt," said a 54-year-old Gaza woman who identified herself by the nickname Um Kamal and was heading back to Gaza with two female relatives and two children. The group shared a load of sacks filled with blankets, dishware, honey, cheese, tea and clothes that they had just bought.

"Egypt is closer to us than Israel. They are our brothers," Um Kamal said. "Israel is putting us under siege. Jordan is closed to us. We have no alternative but Egypt."

Egyptian security forces tried unsuccessfully Friday to end the Palestinian exodus. Police cars drove through Egyptian border towns blaring the message: "Dear Palestinian brothers, when you have finished buying your goods, please return to Gaza. The border is closing."

Early Friday, scores of Egyptian police carrying riot shields took up positions along the border, blocking more Palestinians from entering Egypt. Armored vehicles and trucks carrying barbed wire and water cannons rolled to the border.

Violence broke out in the late afternoon, when police were due to close the border. Palestinian witnesses said Egyptian security forces fired tear gas and unleashed attack dogs. Palestinians abruptly turned on the Egyptians, pummeling them.

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