RAFAH, Egypt – Thousands of Palestinians streamed home through the breaches in Gaza’s border with Egypt on Sunday after Egyptian authorities choked off supplies to the area and moved to restore control.
Egypt has struggled to re-seal the border and contain hundreds of thousands of needy Gazans who poured across since militants blasted openings last Wednesday to evade an Israeli blockade on the Hamas Islamist-run territory.
A Reuters reporter on the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah on Sunday saw thousands of Palestinians leaving Egypt, dwarfing the number of those crossing in from the Gaza Strip.
“We wanted to buy food. It was very difficult. We could not find anything,” said 17-year-old Khalil Hamdan. “We won’t come back because all the products are finished.”
Hundreds of trucks were held up at a bridge that leads from mainland Egypt to the Sinai peninsula and Gaza. Merchants in Rafah said they were struggling to resupply their shops with food and cigarettes. Palestinians said the scarcity of goods drove prices to the roof.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said his country would take steps to control the border with Gaza “as soon as possible” without giving details. Egyptian forces tried to seal the border last week but militants just bulldozed new openings.
In the town of El-Arish, near Rafah, police told Palestinians in the street that the border would soon be shut, witnesses said. Police herded Gazans toward roads leading back towards the border and stopped from returning.
Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, does not want to be seen as aiding the Israeli blockade. However, it also fears the spread of Islamist influence and the effects of hosting so many Palestinians without identity papers.
AGREEMENT IN DOUBT
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ government said it had agreed with Cairo that it would run the crossing, excluding Hamas, which drove Abbas’ forces out of the impoverished territory of 1.5 million last June.
But Hamas said it had assurances from Egypt that there had been no deal. Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led administration in Gaza, said it was sending a delegation to Cairo on Wednesday to discuss control of the crossings.
“We have one demand: The siege must be lifted,” Haniyeh said. “Rafah crossing must be reopened.” Abbas will also meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo this week.
Egyptian officials were not available for comment. But Arab foreign ministers meeting in an emergency session in Cairo welcomed Abbas’ suggestion to take control of the border.
There was no sign of progress on the border agreement at a meeting between the Palestinian leader and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday, where Abbas’ aides had said he would seek support for the idea.
An Israeli official said the Gaza crossing was not discussed at length, but Olmert told Abbas the Jewish state would keep letting humanitarian supplies into Gaza. Israel said the embargo was imposed to counter rocket fire out of the territory.
Israel has so far resisted Abbas’ request to take control of Gaza crossings. Israeli officials said the request was under consideration but that they believed Abbas’ security forces would not be capable of doing the job anytime soon.
The fall of the border at Rafah has weakened a U.S.-backed campaign to curb the clout of Hamas, which refuses to give up its fight against Israel, and strengthen Abbas by restarting peace talks with the Jewish state.
Ahmed Youssef, a Hamas official whose statements are not always supported by the leadership, was quoted by the Maan news agency as saying that Gazans could next try to force open the main foot crossing into Israel, the Erez Terminal, continuing a “third Intifada”, or uprising, that they had begun at Rafah.
Israel, which occupied Gaza in 1967, pulled out in 2005 but still controls its other borders, airspace and coastal waters. Abbas’ authority is effectively restricted to the occupied West Bank since Hamas took control of Gaza.