Borderless Rafah revels in moment of freedom

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The Independent Online

Until the early hours of Monday, to even approach the imposing 6m-high armoured steel barrier marking the Egyptian border with southern Gaza was to invite Israeli gunfire.

But yesterday hundreds of delighted Palestinians were clambering over and through it - in their eagerness to visit relatives on the other side of this town that has been divided by the border for 23 years, and to buy cheap Egyptian goods.

A resident striding to the border like the thousands who have crossed it since the Israeli army withdrew on Sunday shouted at people returning: "Welcome to Rafah in Palestine, I am going to Rafah in Egypt."

With a new sense of freedom to travel, Palestinians and Egyptians passed through gaps left by Israeli gun turrets and climbed a ladder that was placed against the barrier.

The freedom, while intoxicating, may be short-lived. Palestinian officials said they agreed with the measures to stop the thousands of Palestinians and Egyptians who have streamed through the supposedly closed southern Gaza border since the Israeli withdrawal.

The pledge that the border would be sealed from tonight followed a protest to Egyptian officers by the Israeli army at their failure to halt the two-way passage, which Israel regards as a serious potential breach of security. The main traffic has been to and from the southern - Egyptian - side of Rafah, which was separated from Gaza under the 1982 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and left many families divided.

Israel has angered the Palestinian Authority by insisting the crossing remain closed for the next six months, and the gates of the crossing, manned by Egyptian and Palestinian security officers, remained closed yesterday.

But Rafah residents were still making the most of their opportunity to travel. As Palestinian security officials visited the closed official border crossing, a truck from Egypt piled high with furniture was trundling into the Palestinian side of Rafah, and pedestrian smugglers carried cartons of cheap cigarettes into the city.

With most residents wanting to do no more than visit their relatives - in some cases for the first time in more than a decade - one money changer said he had sold about 2,000 Egyptian pounds (£190) to departing Palestinian residents.

Mahmoud Khalil Awad 18, a student, said he had returned from El Arish where he had seen his parents for the first time for more than five years, and met his sisters, triplets aged five, for the first time. "Last time I went to see them I was arrested in El Arish by the Egyptians then detained by the Israelis for two months, and then handed over to the Palestinians who also detained me. This time I was able to hug them." He showed a series of text books, including one on democracy and Islamic civilization, which he had bought for prices 10 times cheaper than in Gaza.

Mohammed Said abu Marahil, 60, an egg merchant from Deir el Balah was visiting his 75-year-old sister for the first time in 10 years. "This is the real proof that we have peace."

Among groups of Egyptian youths visiting relatives in Palestinian Rafah, Mohammed Odeh Al Bairi, who runs a cafeteria on the other side of the border said: "I have never been here. I am very sad to see the destruction [after more than four years of armed conflict]. I pray that God will keep the border open because we have no work in Egypt and there are jobs here."

Although being visited by a much-loved nephew from Egypt, Sakiba Soboh, 60, a woman in Palestinian Rafah - itself dogged by poverty and unemployment - expressed some scepticism on overhearing this, saying she feared "Egyptians will take over the country. They are like locusts, eating everything up."

Jamal Kaed, the Palestinian commander of southern Gaza security forces, said yesterday that roadblocks had been set up to prevent vehicles reaching the area and that large consignments of marijuana and other illegal drugs had been discovered in the area. It was not immediately clear what other measures the forces would take.

Egypt have denied killing a Palestinian, Nafez Atiya, at the border on Monday, in an apparently isolated incident, suggesting he may have been shot accidentally by celebratory Palestinian gunfire. An occasional warning shot was fired as the crowds threatened to get out of control yesterday.

For now though, Israeli withdrawal has been welcome in Rafah - scene of some of the worst fighting and home demolitions in the past five years - though Ala Adin Fodeh 42, another resident joked: "I have trouble sleeping without the sound of explosions and gunfire."