'I told Gazans to come and eat'
Jan 23, 2008
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Egypt from Gaza on Wednesday after gunmen destroyed about two-thirds of the Gaza-Egypt border wall. Most of the Gazans returned after stocking up on food and other basic supplies that have become scarce due to the blockade imposed on the territory by Israel.
UN personnel said they estimated the number of Palestinians who entered Egypt to be 350,000.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he had ordered his troops to allow Palestinians to cross into Egypt because they were starving.
Speaking at the Cairo International Book fair, Mubarak told reporters that when Palestinians began breaking through the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah by force, he told his men to let them in to buy food before escorting them out.
"I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons," he said, in answer to reporters' questions.
Mubarak said his border guards originally had forced back the Gazans on Tuesday.
"But today a great number of them came back because the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege. Egyptian troops accompanied them to buy food and then allowed them to return to the Gaza Strip," he added.
Mubarak also criticized Hamas for continuing to fire missiles into Israel, saying that it was not helping the situation. He said that he had been in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and helped convince him to resume fuel shipments into Gaza.
"Although fuel was sent and electricity was back, some on the Palestinian side then fired seven missiles," he said. "This does not help to bring quiet."
Also Wednesday, Israel Radio reported that Egyptian police forcefully dispersed a protest held in Egypt in support of Gaza Palestinians. Police officers used tear gas on the crowd and arrested some 500 people, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel is worried about the chaos on the Gaza-Egypt border, and expects Egypt to solve the problem, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday, several hours after the Gazans poured into Egypt.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel noted that Israel has no forces on the Gaza-Egypt border. Therefore, he said, "It is the responsibility of Egypt to ensure that the border operates properly, according to the signed agreements," he said. "We expect the Egyptians to solve the problem. Obviously we are worried about the situation. It could potentially allow anybody to enter."
Egyptian border guards and Hamas police took no action as Palestinians hurried over the border and began returning with bags of food, boxes of cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel.
The chaotic scenes came on the sixth day of a complete closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and backed by Egypt, in response to a spike in Gaza rocket attacks on Israeli border towns. Hamas has orchestrated daily demonstrations on the Gaza-Egypt border, in an apparent attempt to appeal to Arab public opinion and pressure Egypt to open the passage.
On Tuesday, Israel eased the closure slightly, transferring fuel to restart Gaza's only power plant, and also sent in some cooking gas, food and medicine. Israel has pledged to continue limited shipments because of concerns that a humanitarian crisis could develop.
Before dawn Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen began blowing holes in the border wall running along the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas security later closed most holes, but left two open and allowed free traffic through those.
Hamas appears to be applying pressure on Egypt, which has cooperated with Israel's sanctions by keeping the Rafah border closed. By affecting public opinion in Egypt, scenes of privation in Gaza could force Egypt to ease the border closure, allowing the Hamas regime to relieve its isolation.
An off-duty Hamas security officer who identified himself as Abdel Rahman, 29, said this was his first time out of Gaza. "I can smell the freedom," he said. "We need no border after today."
Mekel pledged Tuesday that the shipments would go on. "We will continue [Wednesday] and in the coming days to deliver more aid to Gaza until all promised supplies get across," he said.
The Defense Ministry ruled late Tuesday that 250,000 liters of diesel fuel would be transferred into Gaza daily, but the crossings would remain closed to other goods and people until further notice.