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Palestinians Topple Gaza Wall and Cross to Egypt
RAFAH, Egypt - Thousands of Palestinians streamed from the Gaza Strip into Egypt on Wednesday after a fence at the Rafah border crossing was toppled, going on a buying spree of fuel, medicine, soap, cigarettes and many other supplies that have been cut off during days of blockade by Israel.
The scene at the border was one of a great bazaar, with Palestinians piling donkeys, carts and motorcycles high with goats, mattresses, chickens, televisions, cement and other goods they had been unable to buy in Gaza.
Israel ordered the closing of its border crossings into Gaza last week, halting all shipments except for emergency supplies, after a sustained and intense barrage of rocket fire into Israel by militant groups in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. Israel allowed in some fuel, medical supplies and food on Tuesday, as temporary relief, but has said that its closure policy remains in place.
Initial reports suggested that Hamas militants had used explosives to blow a hole in the corrugated-iron border fence at Rafah. The Rafah crossing into Egypt has been shut since Hamas took over Gaza in a short war with Fatah last summer.
Witnesses reported hearing explosions early Wednesday morning, and said that Hamas then sent bulldozers to push the fence over. Some reports said Hamas militants had blown as many as 15 holes along the fence. Later television footage showed that the fence had been toppled in several sections.
People began pouring over the fence before dawn, said one witness, Fatan Hessin, 45. She had crossed into Egypt to be reunited with a childhood friend. "I am not Hamas or Fatah, but I thank Hamas for this," she said.
Arye Mekel, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said: "I think Hamas has been planning this for a long time. Maybe they thought this would be an opportune time." He was referring to the mounting international concerns over Israel's blockade.
Hamas supporters held a protest in Rafah on Tuesday, when dozens of protesters, many of them women, tried to push through the crossing into Egypt in two waves and were forced back by Egyptian police officers and soldiers, sometimes using a water cannon and shooting into the air.
On Wednesday, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said he ordered his troops to allow Palestinians finally to cross because the Palestinians were starving, The Associated Press reported.
"But today a great number of them came back because the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege," he said, according to the A.P.
Gaza's population of 1.5 million depends on imports for most basic supplies. After the border fence fell, Egyptian merchants took goods to the Egyptian side of Rafah to sell, and some Palestinians were bringing home televisions and computers.
Bags of cement were in particular demand, since building materials have been in short supply for months due to restrictions Israel imposed after the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Israel suspects Hamas of using cement to build tunnels.
Muhammed Mowab, 22, a student and barber, said he brought in 25 bags of cement to build a home so that he could get married, which he has been awaiting for a year. He said he had paid the equivalent of about $5 per bag, compared with $75 a bag of cement in Gaza.
Gas stations on the Egyptian side of the border were besieged, according to the BBC.
There were few signs of police officers directing the crowds, and Egyptian border guards stood aside to let the Palestinians cross. Riot police waited a few streets away.
The Rafah crossing has been a point of controversy between Egypt and Israel. Hamas and Egypt have opened the crossing briefly on a few occasions, most recently to permit about 2,000 Palestinians to make the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
But Israeli officials contend that Hamas exploits these occasions to bring weapons and money into Gaza from Egypt.
Mr. Mekel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said of the latest breach: "The danger is that Hamas and other terror organizations will take advantage of the situation to smuggle in weapons and men and make a bad situation in Gaza worse."
Aid officials had warned earlier this week that Gaza, gripped by fuel and electricity shortages, was two or three days from a health and food crisis.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, announced Monday that it would have to suspend its food aid to 860,000 Gaza residents by Wednesday or Thursday if the crossings from Israel into Gaza were not reopened, because the group was running out of the nylon bags it uses to measure and distribute staples, like flour.
Ms. Hessin, who used the breach of the border to meet up with her childhood friend, Inshira Hanbal, on the Egyptian side, said: "We are extremely tired of this life. The closure, the unemployment, the poverty. No one is working in my household."
On Tuesday, Israel pumped about 750,000 liters of industrial diesel into Gaza, part of the 2.2 million liters it said it would provide for one week only to Gaza's main power station, which had shut down after its tanks ran dry.
On Tuesday afternoon, the plant started one of its three turbines, bringing power to parts of Gaza City that had been dark or running on generators.
Steven Erlanger reported from Rafah, Egypt, and Graham Bowley from New York. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
© 2008 The New York Times