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Gazans flood over Egyptian border

Egyptian troops kept their distance from the breached Gaza border on Saturday a day after a security guard was shot in the foot, allowing thousands of Palestinians to stream unhindered into Egypt.

world Updated: Jan 26, 2008 17:39 IST
Tim Cocks

Egyptian troops kept their distance from the breached Gaza border on Saturday a day after a security guard was shot in the foot, allowing thousands of Palestinians to stream unhindered into Egypt.

Palestinian taxis drove passengers across the border three days after Palestinian militants blasted it open in defiance of an Israeli blockade. Gaza-registered cars and trucks began ferrying food and fuel back from Egypt.

Security sources said forces had been ordered to pull back from the border overnight and avoid confrontation with Gazans.

Palestinian officials said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would ask Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to accept his offer to control Gaza crossings if the two men met, as expected, on Sunday.

In a separate incident on Saturday, Israeli police shot and wounded a Palestinian who stabbed an Israeli border policeman near Jerusalem, Israeli police and ambulance workers said.

"I am entering with my car to get diesel. I went to the petrol stations in Rafah but didn't find any, so I bought on the black market," said taxi driver Abu Jihad, 48, of Khan Younis in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

He said he had filled the tank of his taxi and had packed his car with jerrycans of diesel to bring back to Gaza.

Mohamed Ali al-Shahed, 32, drove his car into Egypt to retrieve a shipment of drugs ordered from Cairo for his pharmacy in Rafah on the Palestinian side of the divided border town.

"I haven't had new drugs in my pharmacy for seven months ... Thank God the pharmacy now has medicine, and at more moderate prices," he said as he drove back into Gaza, guiding an Egyptian truck filled with medicines into the Palestinian territory.

Israel said it had imposed its blockade to try to counter cross-border rocket fire. The fall of the Rafah wall was a setback for a U.S.-backed campaign to curb Hamas's clout and boost Abbas nearly eight months after the Islamist group routed Abbas's Fatah forces in Gaza.

One security source said Egyptian forces were told to allow the border to stay open for three more days. Others said no time limit had been set.

While Egyptian forces were standing back from the Rafah border, hundreds of police deployed in the nearby coastal town of el-Arish, closing main commercial streets to vehicle traffic as Gaza-plated cars streamed into town.

ABBAS OFFER

Palestinian officials said Abbas had a plan to end the Gaza blockade and would urge Olmert to accept his offer to control Gaza's crossings at Sunday's meeting aimed at pushing forward peace talks.

Abbas told a conference in Ramallah in the West Bank: "We have offered a complete plan that will allow them (Hamas) to retract and that will guarantee that our people will not remain under siege. This includes our control of the border crossings."

Hamas has said it will prevent the move unless it has a say in any future agreements regarding the border crossings.

The Egyptian government faces a difficult balancing act.

It does not want to be seen as aiding the Israeli blockade, but is under U.S. and Israeli pressure to take control. It also fears the spread of Islamist influence and the effects of hosting so many Palestinians without identity papers.

On Friday, Egyptian forces began placing barbed wire and chain-link fences to stop more people crossing. But Hamas militants, cheered on by crowds of Gazans, used a bulldozer to flatten sections of the chain and concrete fence.

Tensions flared at one point, and Egyptian state media said 22 security men were hurt. Security sources at the border said seven were injured, six by stones and one shot in the foot.

Adel Salman, an Egyptian who lives near the border, said he saw truckloads of police leaving on Friday night. A handful of border guards in armoured vehicles trickled back to the border on Saturday to monitor the flow, but did not intervene.

Citing the breach in Gaza's southern border, some top Israeli officials have advocated cutting Israel's remaining links with the coastal territory and putting the onus on Egypt.

Israel, which occupied Gaza in 1967, pulled its troops out and settlers in 2005 but still controls the strip's northern and eastern borders, airspace and coastal waters.

(Additional Mohamed Yusuf in Rafah, Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Richard Balmforth)