Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
January 25, 2008 - 6:12pm

Tens of thousands more Palestinians flooded across the breached border crossing from Gaza into Egypt on Thursday, and Egyptian merchants greeted them with a cornucopia of consumer goods and higher prices than on Wednesday, when Hamas militants toppled large sections of the fence.

Many more Egyptian police officers were at various ruptures in the barrier at Rafah, more of them in riot gear and some using batons with small electric charges to keep the huge, pushing crowds in some form of order.

And on Thursday, more members of Hamas security forces were visible on the Gaza side, maintaining calm and doing random checks for weapons possibly being smuggled in for Fatah, the rival faction Hamas forced out of Gaza in June.

But neither group tried to stop the shoppers and businessmen restocking their wares in Egypt, nor did Hamas make any visible effort to control or tax the thousands of cigarettes coming into Gaza, let alone the televisions, generators, washing machines, milk, cheese, sheep, goats, cows, camels, diesel fuel and gasoline.

Hamas gunmen could be seen quietly taking delivery of hundreds of bags of cement. Israel has sharply restricted cement imports to Gaza, even for aid projects, because it says Hamas diverts the supply to build fortified tunnels and emplacements for use against any major Israeli military action.

Exchange rates and prices were up, as were the amounts Gazans were buying, with the clear intent to resell in Gaza. So intense was the trading that even some Palestinians worried that there would be a backlash from impoverished Egyptians in Rafah.

“This is not so good for the Palestinian people,” said Ahmed Shawa, a Gaza engineer who entered Egypt on Thursday. “Prices are becoming very high while people in Egyptian Rafah don’t have bread. If I go to your country and buy everything and you don’t have bread, you’re going to hate me.”

Hamas officials said they took action to open the Egyptian border after Israel decided last week to stop nearly all shipments into Gaza, including industrial diesel fuel needed to run Gaza’s main power plant and gasoline, in an effort to push Gazan militants to stop firing rockets at Israeli towns and farms.

Under severe international criticism, Israel relented, but only temporarily. It agreed to supply a week’s worth of fuel, but limited supplies again after the border breach.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt considered his options. But Egyptian officials made it clear on Thursday that while Egypt would not hinder Palestinians seeking food and other goods, it would not accept a lawless border, open to arms traffic and unregulated travel of gunmen and political extremists.

Israel and the United States said it was Egypt’s responsibility to bring the border situation under control.

Gen. Ahmed Abdel Hamid, the governor of northern Sinai, estimated that as many as 120,000 Palestinians were in Egypt, but he said they were not being allowed to travel beyond El Arish, which lies slightly west of Rafah. He said he thought the border might stay open for another “four or five days” and then be closed pending another agreement on what to do.

“You have to see where this problem came from,” he said. “Before the dispute between Hamas and Fatah, the border was open every day with no problem. Since the dispute, the border has been closed.”

In fact, before the fighting between the Palestinian factions over the summer the Rafah crossing was closed more often than it was open. But General Abdel Hamid emphasized that Egypt was not favoring one faction or another, saying, “Egypt is with the legitimate authority,” presumably the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.

Mr. Mubarak’s officials said Egypt would not accept responsibility for supplying Gaza and let Israel off the hook, as some Israeli officials hope.

“This is a wrong assumption,” said Hossam Zaki, the spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry. “The current situation is only an exception and for temporary reasons. The border will go back to normal.”

But the definition of normal was left unclear. When Israel pulled its settlers and troops out of Gaza in 2005, the Rafah crossing was opened with great fanfare to allow people in and out of Gaza. European Union supervisors were put in place, and Israeli video cameras monitored the traffic. But for security reasons, the crossing was often closed, and it has been shut completely since Hamas took over Gaza.

It will be difficult politically now for Mr. Mubarak to reseal the border completely, shutting off any outlet for Gaza. Egypt, with a strong opposition element from the Muslim Brotherhood, does not want to offend its Palestinian wing, Hamas. But Mr. Mubarak would prefer to work out an arrangement with the legal authority, President Abbas. In addition, Mr. Mubarak has promised Israel that Egypt will coordinate its actions on the Gaza border to preserve security interests of both countries.

In a speech on Thursday, Mr. Mubarak said that “peace efforts cannot endure any other failure, and Egypt will not allow the starving of Palestinians in Gaza or that the situation in the strip turns into a humanitarian crisis.”

He called on Palestinian factions to work together and said, “No one can outbid Egypt in its support for this silent nation and their just cause.”

Egypt, he said, “is doing its utmost in its movements and contacts to end their suffering and to lift the Israeli measures of collective punishment and to bring back the supply of fuel and electricity and humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.”

Hamas officials want to regulate the border but reopen the crossing in coordination with Egypt. They also want to allow the import and export of goods. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said in an interview that Hamas wanted to end the system under which Israel collects import duties and taxes for the Palestinians. Israel does not give those receipts to Hamas, but only to the Palestinian Authority government, based in Ramallah, in the West Bank.

He also said the Israeli economy was too expensive for Gazans, while prices of everything, including electricity, flour and gasoline, were much cheaper in Egypt.

On Thursday, the Israeli deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said openly what some senior Israeli officials would only say anonymously on Wednesday — that Israel would like to hand over responsibility for Gaza to Egypt, in essence supporting the Hamas position. “We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it,” Mr. Vilnai said. “So we want to disconnect from it.”

He said Israel’s effort to disengage from Gaza “continues in that we want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and medicine, so that it would come from another place.” But according to his office, he acknowledged that “we are responsible for it as long as there is no alternative.”

Mr. Abbas wants to ensure that Gaza is not permanently separated politically and economically from the West Bank, while even Hamas argues that Israel continues to be responsible for the well-being of Gazans because it continues to control Gaza’s sea and airspace and the only goods crossings.

On Sunday, Israel’s Supreme Court will hear an emergency appeal by Israeli human rights groups for an injunction against Israel’s cuts in electricity and in fuel supplies to Gaza.

Although Israel promised to deliver 580,000 gallons of industrial diesel fuel this week for Gaza’s sole power plant, which supplies much of Gaza City, only 333,000 gallons had been delivered by Thursday. The power plant, which had shut down for lack of fuel and is running only one turbine, will have to shut down again on Sunday unless new supplies are delivered. Normally, Israel and Egypt supply the rest of Gaza’s power needs.

U.N. Tells Israel to Lift Blockade

GENEVA — A special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council demanded Thursday that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza and condemned its “grave” human rights violations.

The resolution, sponsored by Syria on behalf of Arab states, made no reference to Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. As a result, the council’s proceedings drew criticism for anti-Israeli bias, and 15 of its 47 members abstained.

Human rights groups also criticized the council for devoting four of the six special sessions it had convened in the two years of its existence to the Arab-Israeli conflict, while not taking up gross violations of human rights in Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and other places.


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