Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tens of Thousands Cross Downed Gaza Wall


RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Masked gunmen destroyed about two-thirds of the metal wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the town of Rafah and tens of thousands of Palestinians poured across the border to buy supplies made scarce by an Israeli blockade of the impoverished territory.

The gunmen began breaching the border wall dividing Rafah before dawn, according to witnesses and Hamas officials, who told The Associated Press that they had closed all but two of the gaps in the wall. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said they were allowed free movement through the open gaps.

Thousands of Gazans began crossing into Egypt and returning with milk, cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel, the Hamas officials and witnesses said.

An Associated Press reporter arrived after first light and saw that about two-thirds of the seven-mile-long wall at Rafah had been demolished. The reporter also saw the crowd of Palestinians crossing into Egypt swell into the tens of thousands.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Masked gunmen blew holes in the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt early Wednesday and thousands of Palestinians poured across the border to buy supplies made scarce by an Israeli blockade of the impoverished territory.

Egyptian guards and police from the militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, stood by without taking action.

Israel transferred fuel to restart Gaza's only electricity plant Tuesday, easing its five-day blockade of the Palestinian territory amid growing international concern about a humanitarian crisis.

But before dawn the next day, Palestinian gunmen began breaching the border wall dividing the town of Rafah, which has a Gazan and an Egyptian side.

The identity of the gunmen who breached the border was not immediately clear. But Hamas expressed support for the move, saying, "Blowing up the border wall with Egypt is a reflection of the ... catastrophic situation which the Palestinian people in Gaza are living through due to the blockade."

Hamas security closed all but two of the holes, through which it allowed free movement. Gazans began crossing into Egypt and returning with milk, cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel.

Gazan Ibrahim Abu Taha, 45, a father of seven, was in the Egyptian section of Rafah with his two brothers and $185 in his pocket.

"We want to buy food, we want to buy rice and sugar, milk and wheat and some cheese," Abu Taha told The Associated Press by telephone, adding that he would also buy cheap Egyptian cigarettes.

Abu Taha said he could get such items in Gaza, but at three times the cost.

Faced with a crippling Israeli blockade, Hamas appears to be applying pressure on Egypt, which has cooperated with Israel's sanctions by keeping the Rafah border closed.

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 by phone. "We need no border after today."

Abdel Rahman said no weapons were being smuggled in from Egypt.

"You can buy weapons in Gaza, guns and RPGs," he said, adding that it was easier to find weapons in Gaza than cancer medicine or Coke.

Weapons are generally brought into Gaza through smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The U.S. had warned Israel not to add to the hardship for ordinary Palestinians but blamed the problem on Hamas. Israel imposed the siege in response to increasing rocket attacks on its border communities by Gaza militants.

Despite the easing of the closure, Palestinian militants fired 19 rockets toward Israel on Tuesday, the military said, up from just two on Monday.

The lights were back on in most of Gaza City by Tuesday afternoon after a blackout that lasted almost two days. But Gazans still vented their anger throughout the day.

Hundreds of Hamas supporters briefly broke through the Gaza-Egypt border and clashed with Egyptian riot police who fired in the air, wounding 70 people on both sides. The protesters hurled insults at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, calling him a coward.

In a clash early Wednesday with Israeli forces near the closed Sufa crossing into Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military said soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinian militants in the area.

Throughout the closure, which cut power to a third of Gaza's 1.5 million people, hospitals kept running on generators. But most bakeries shut down, and long lines formed at those that were open. A shipment of cooking gas sent in by Israel on Tuesday sold out in an hour.

Governments, aid agencies and the U.N. issued urgent appeals for an end to the closure. Israel's Defense Ministry ruled late Tuesday that 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel will be transferred into Gaza daily, but the crossings will remain closed to other goods and people until further notice.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni blamed Hamas.

"I am not among those who care whether this or that group fired a rocket," she told the annual Herzliya Conference on security. "Hamas has control of the territory, and Hamas is responsible."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration has spoken to Israeli officials "about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold." Israeli officials were receptive, she said, adding that she too blames Hamas for the situation.

Despite the blockade, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he will not pull out of peace talks. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised President Bush to try to complete a peace accord this year.

"We should intensify our contacts and our meetings to stop the suffering of our people," Abbas said in his first comment since the latest round of Israel-Hamas fighting erupted last week.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, is not a party to the talks.

Associated Press writers Steven Gutkin in Herzliya, Israel, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.