Egyptian guards block Gaza border

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The Independent Online

Egyptian border guards moved to close the border with the Gaza Strip today, forming a human shield and blocking movement of Palestinians into Egypt with riot shields, eyewitnesses said.

The Egyptians were allowing passage only to Palestinians seeking to return to the strip after visiting Egypt, in the wake of the demolition of large stretches of the border wall by Hamas militants on Wednesday night.

Since the barrier was breached, Egypt has allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to go back and forth, but has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory.

In what looked like a first step toward restoring control, Egyptian security forces began turning back Palestinians who attempted to travel deeper into Egypt - though they did nothing to stem the flow of Egyptian goods making their way to the frontier region to replenish rapidly depleting stocks.

At the same time, dozens of Hamas militants dressed in black stood on the Gaza side of the border, in front of the fallen wall, checking people's bags and packages for weapons, drugs and other prohibited items as they re-entered Gaza.

As the presence of Egyptian and Hamas security forces grew, so did the crowds, as Gazans sought to stock up on basic supplies before Egypt made good on its word to reseal the frontier.

Today, Egyptian police formed a cordon, blocking Gazans from passing into Egypt through the main breach in the border. Angry Gazans threw stones at the Egyptians and scuffled with policemen and shots were fired in the air.

However, Palestinians were still getting through in other areas, and Egyptians posted there made no effort to stop them.

By all accounts, this week's breaching of the Gaza-Egypt border has provided a significant popularity boost to Gaza's Hamas rulers, who can claim they successfully broke through the internationally supported Israeli closure that has deprived the coastal strip of normal trade and commerce for nearly two years.

Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June.

The issue turned into a verbal spat between Egypt and Israel when Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel gradually wants to relinquish responsibility for Gaza, now that the territory's border with Egypt has been blown open.

It was a position echoed by other Israeli officials, who said the border breach could pave the way for increasingly disconnecting from the territory. However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, speaking on Thursday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, said he didn't want to "go too far in my interpretation of this".

Egypt angrily rejected the Israeli ideas and said it would not change border arrangements.

"The border will go back as normal," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki. "The current situation is only an exception and for temporary reasons."