100,000 Gazans Cross Border At Rafah

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London demonstration last June in support of the Palestinian struggle
London demonstration last June in support of the Palestinian struggle

GAZANS poured into Egypt for a second consecutive day on Thursday to stock up on supplies after militants blew open the border barrier of the Hamas-run territory, witnesses said.

Thousands of people continued to cross the border, most of them intent on buying goods on the Egyptian side a week after Israel imposed a blockade on the impoverished, densely populated territory.

Since militants set off explosions bringing down several stretches of the wall that marks the border between Gaza and Egypt in the divided town of Rafah on Tuesday night, tens of thousands of Gazans have flooded out, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to leave the coastal strip unhindered.

Shelves in numerous stores on the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah and in El-Arish further west have emptied because of the unexpected influx, witnesses said.

Israel has progressively tightened restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza since June 2006.

Since then the Rafah border crossing – Gaza’s only one that bypasses Israel – has been closed almost continuously.

After the democratically elected Hamas seized control of the territory a year later, routing forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Israel sealed Gaza to all but humanitarian aid and basic supplies.

Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered Gaza completely locked down.

Meanwhile, the Security Council was to meet Thursday to hear whether Washington would agree to a compromise statement urging an end to Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip.

The council’s 15 ambassadors were to meet at 11.00am (1600 GMT) after Libya’s UN Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi, the council chair this month, indicated on Wednesday that 14 members essentially agreed a revised text worked out by council experts.

Diplomats said the US delegation was to consult Washington for instruction ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

The United States, a staunch ally of Israel, insists that the crippling Israeli blockade of Gaza is a self-defence move in the face of rockets fired from the impoverished territory controlled by the Palestinian movement Hamas.

It demands that any council statement take into account Israel’s security concerns.

‘The blame for this problem can be laid squarely at the feet of Hamas,’ which seized power of Gaza seven months ago, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Speaking in Zurich on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: ‘We are very concerned that there be stability in that region but most importantly that both the security concerns of Israel and the humanitarian concerns of the Gazans be met.’

But Arab ambassadors warned that if Washington blocks adoption of the latest non-binding text, they could push for a resolution rather than a mere statement, or take their case to the 192-member General Assembly where they were confident of securing overwhelming support, since the US does not enjoy a veto there.

The latest version of the draft expresses ‘deep concern about the steep deterioration of the humanitarian situation’ in Gaza due to the Israeli blockade.

It ‘calls on all parties to immediately cease all acts of violence, including the firing of rockets into Israeli territory and all activities which are contrary to international law and endanger civilians,’ a reference to the Israeli siege.

And it takes note of Israel’s decision ‘to suspend the closure of the crossing points (into Gaza) and calls for it to be fully implemented.’

An earlier draft submitted by Libya had urged Israel to end its siege of Gaza and ensure ‘unhindered access for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people’ but had made no mention of the rocket attacks.

A prolonged Israeli blockade of Gaza was tightened seven days ago to a full-scale lockdown, blocking all fuel shipments and even humanitarian aid.

On a visit to Berlin, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad called on Israel to lift the blockade saying the rush of Gazans to Egypt was proof of the ‘difficulties Palestinians face and the need to reopen border posts’.

Rivals Fatah and Hamas both blamed Israel for the breakout.

Tens of thousands of Gazans poured into Egypt on Wednesday to stock up on goods in the face of an Israeli blockade, after militants blew up parts of the fence that marks the border.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he had authorised the crossing of the Palestinians as long as they were unarmed.

‘I told (security forces) to allow them to buy their basic needs and go back to Gaza as long as they are not carrying arms or anything illegal,’ Mubarak told reporters in Cairo.

Egyptian officials said they estimate the number of Gazans who crossed over at up to 100,000.

Parts of the barrier separating Egypt and the Gaza Strip were knocked down by at least 15 explosions and flattened by a bulldozer, allowing people to leave the impoverished territory on which Israel imposed a complete blockade last Thursday.

Both Fatah and Hamas said the breakout was an inevitable consequence of the blockade.

‘Israel is responsible for what has happened – this is the consequence of the blockade imposed on Gaza,’ Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

‘The situation went out of control because of the strangulation caused by the blockade that has been imposed during nearly eight months on 1.5 million Palestinians,’ Hamas said in a statement.

Ismail Haniya, prime minister in the Hamas-led government dismissed by Abbas last year, called for an emergency meeting with the Palestinian president and Egyptian officials on regularising the opening of the border.

‘We are ready to sit down with our Egyptian brothers and the brothers from Ramallah during an emergency meeting in Cairo to establish arrangements to open the Rafah border crossing, as well as all other border crossings,’ he said in a televised address.

Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement have had no official contacts since last June, when Hamas ousted Fatah fighters from Gaza after a week of deadly clashes.

In Gaza, officials said that Israel had allowed in less aid than it had promised to let through when it eased the blockade on Tuesday allowing in shipments of cooking gas and fuel for Gaza’s sole power station, which ground to a halt on Sunday night.

The power plant received 200,000 litres (52,000 gallons) of fuel oil on Wednesday, in addition to 750,000 litres (195,000 gallons) the previous day, director Rafiq Maliha said.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) also said it was getting in less supplies than anticipated.

‘There are doubts about whether the promised amount of trucks are going to be let in,’ UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said.

Crowds of Palestinians walked the streets of Rafah as shops opened early to serve them.

Empty cars and donkey carts streamed into Egypt before returning to Gaza weighed down with goods.

‘I brought all the money that I had, around 100 dollars. I am going to buy cigarettes here and then resell them in Gaza,’ Ahmed Halaweh said.

Some 2,000 Egyptian security personnel on the frontier did not intervene, but all side roads in Rafah were closed in a bid to control the flow of people.