Palestinian and Egyptian security forces moved Saturday to seal the Gaza Strip's southern border, effectively ending days of celebratory tourism and profitable smuggling that challenged the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern the strip following Israel's departure.
Since the last Israeli soldier left Gaza on Monday, thousands of jubilant Palestinians have traveled back and forth over the once highly fortified border, evading the customs inspections that will come with stricter controls.
The crossings started as a trickle, consisting mostly of Palestinian families taking advantage of the unruly transition to rejoin relatives after long spells of separation. But the trickle quickly became a torrent of people smuggling Marlboro cigarettes, diesel fuel, drugs and perhaps some weapons, infuriating Israeli officials and embarrassing the Palestinian and Egyptian forces responsible for border security.
Beginning before dawn on Saturday, Palestinian and Egyptian officials increased the number of troops along the border, patched breaches in the 25-foot-high concrete frontier wall and strung new barbed wire along it.
Warning shots crackled throughout the day as guards dispersed hundreds of Palestinians, many of them carrying contraband appliances and fuel, as they milled in the sandy buffer zone between the border barriers. Palestinians were prevented from entering Egypt by armed troops, and those still on the Egyptian side were required to return through a single entrance, scheduled to be closed in the next few days.
"I hope it is going to be better," said Col. Jamal Kayeed, the commander of the Palestinian national security forces in southern Gaza, as he visited newly arrived troops pitching tents in the 100-yard-wide corridor. "We are going to control this."
Police Lt. Hussein Abu Soror, who had been guarding the former Jewish settlement of Morag, said he and his men received orders at 2 a.m. Saturday to head to the border. Abu Soror said as many as 2,500 members of the Palestinian security forces were now positioned along the Gaza border, joining a planned contingent of 750 Egyptian troops on the other side, in the Sinai Peninsula.
The border is scheduled to be sealed for at least six months while the Rafah crossing is renovated. In the meantime, all people and goods will pass through the Israeli-monitored crossing at Kerem Shalom, where the Gaza, Egyptian and Israeli borders converge.
"We have closed this border now," said Abu Soror. "Even the Palestinians still inside the Sinai cannot come back in this way."
A ride Saturday along Salahuddin Road, the just-reopened north-south route running the 25-mile length of the strip, suggested that a measure of calm had returned. Former settlements along the highway were mostly free of Palestinian scavengers. Heavy machinery was operating amid piles of rubble, clearing sites for construction projects or planting.
Here at the battered southern edge of Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians crowded in trucks, taxis and horse-drawn carts along the frontier, hoping to continue the brisk trade that has sprung up in recent days. Cranes and bulldozers filled gaps in the wall along the border with large stone blocks, while Egyptian troops stretched barbed wire along the low wall on their side of the buffer zone.
With scrapes from the wire on his right arm and hands, Abdullah Iyan, 34, sadly acknowledged that he had made his last run to the Sinai city of El Arish, where he can fill his propane tanks far more cheaply than in Rafah. The tanks sat empty on a sandy curb after angry guards turned him back.
"I talked to one of them, and he said Abu Mazen had given them the order to shoot once in the air, once in the ground, then once in the belly," said Iyan, a vegetable farmer, using the popular name for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. "That's it. It's over."
During the Palestinian uprising that began nearly five years ago, the average number of people Israel allowed through the Rafah crossing each day declined from 1,200 to fewer than 400, according to the Israel Airports Authority. The required permits and security concerns kept many families apart, including that of newlyweds Ihab and Rajaa Alsami, who married in March in El Arish.
After the wedding and honeymoon, Ihab Alsami, a naval security officer, returned to his family apartment in northern Gaza. He heard by phone that his new bride was pregnant, but he could not arrange for her crossing. Earlier this week, as Ihab scrambled for a way to bring her in amid the chaos, his phone rang: Rajaa was calling from Rafah, where she had slipped across the border, for a ride to her new home.
"Now all of our problems have been solved," he said.
The southern border has long been a popular arms-smuggling corridor, and Palestinian officials have said hundreds of rifles have likely been smuggled across in recent days. The weapons are thought to be destined for the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad -- armed groups that oppose Israel's right to exist. Marijuana and hashish have also been seized at the border, where neighbors say the radical Muslim groups have posted men to watch for drugs.
But easy profits suddenly seemed in jeopardy to Palestinian entrepreneurs such as Mohammed Qishta, 37, who had given his cousin more than $1,000 to buy as much diesel fuel as he could in the Sinai, where it costs one-third as much as in Gaza. Qishta uses it to run the water pumps on his tomato and cucumber farm. He peered over the Egyptian side of the fence where more than 50 Palestinians clamored to enter, including his cousin, who had the filled plastic jugs of fuel at his feet.
"Call Kofi Annan, call Kofi Annan," the cousin, Naim, called with a laugh. Qishta, sweat dripping down his cheeks as he peered through the coils of barbed wire, had other ideas.
"Just let me bring in my goods and I'll give you some sweets," he called to an Egyptian guard, rubbing his fingers together in the universal sign for money.