Freedom for Gaza (but for one day only)
Hole in the wall provides relief from misery of Israeli blockade
Abdullah al-Najar, who runs a taxi company in the northern Gaza town of Jabalya, reflected for a moment as the families and donkey carts, laden with everything from olive oil to mattresses, from cement to computers, streamed past him and through what only hours earlier had been the impenetrable part-iron, part-concrete southern wall incarcerating Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
"I don't know who did it," he said cheerfully. "But this is an agreement between two peoples, not between governments."
Mr Najar, 38, had been up early to make the most of the fact that bulldozers had finished the job begun by the militants who had blown the wall wide open with 17 separate explosive charges in the early hours of yesterday. He was returning from Egypt finally in possession of the means of earning the livelihood a seven-month Israeli blockade had gradually denied him: tyres, car batteries, diesel and spare parts, costing some $1,300 (£650).
Like hundreds of others, he had hired a donkey cart to bring the goods unloaded from an Egyptian taxi across what was once the feared 200-metre-wide Israeli-patrolled Philadelphia corridor, and was now a giant shoppers' car park.
And certainly the steel-helmeted Egyptian border guards standing by their armoured personnel carriers seemed pleased enough to see the tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children who squeezed between the now flattened eight- metre concrete slabs of wall or scrambled across the furrows in the now uselessly prone and twisted corrugated iron barrier.
One, in camouflage fatigues, surrounded by curious small boys and standing by Rafah-Sinai's Shuhada Mosque, but with no visible weapon and refusing to give his name, said: "Everything is good. We are very happy at what happened." Had his unit received instructions on how to handle the day-long mass Palestinian break-out? "Nobody told us anything," he replied.
This may not have been quite the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But if anyone doubted the impact of a prolonged siege on an imprisoned people, they had the evidence yesterday.
With Gaza City's streets abnormally light of traffic because of the fuel shortages, the cars, vans, cattle trucks, packed with Gazans seeking everyday household wares, crowded the main Salahadin north-south artery of the Gaza Strip clogging the approaches to the border, confident of filling their jerry cans of petrol and diesel after queueing patiently on the other side. "We are going to heaven," shouted one teenager.
Egyptian Rafah had never seen anything like it, and by early afternoon many of the stores had emptied of goods. As the Egyptian money changers scrambled through the gate in the wire fence on their side of the border, their pockets stuffed with bank notes, the exchange rate in the micro-market of northern Sinai rose from seven Israeli agorot to one shekel for an Egyptian pound.
Israel will understandably see the endless two-way traffic through a gap in the border at least a kilometre wide as a major security headache. It complained yesterday that the breach meant that "potentially anyone could enter" Gaza. And no one, not even the discreetly positioned Hamas paramilitaries monitoring the exodus from the Palestinian side – and in places levying taxes on the incoming cartons of Egyptian cigarettes – could tell exactly what each cart, sack and can contained.
But even if, as seems highly probable, Hamas were themselves responsible for blowing open the wall, it was the huge masses of civilian Palestinians starved since June of any goods other than the absolute basics – and for much of the past week even of those – which then overwhelmed the border yesterday.
Men such as Mohammed al-Sheikh, 30, a butcher from Deir el Balah in central Gaza, where the price of beef has almost doubled to £7.50 a kilo, had simply taken an Egyptian taxi to the village of Sheikh Zied and walked back to the border leading the frisky black and white cow he had bought for 4,000 Egyptian pounds, or £360.
Or Marwan Talah, a 25-year-old farmer from Gaza City whose haul included six brown shaggy-haired sheep from Al Arish and two bags apiece of chemical fertiliser and the all-precious Egyptian Portland white cement which nearly every Gazan seemed to have bought sacks of yesterday. The months' long absence of cement imports through the closed Karni cargo crossing has not only halted construction throughout Gaza, but meant that its families can no longer provide the slabs to cover the graves of their dead.
But they had not all come for the medicine, flour, cooking gas, tobacco, chocolates, ovens – and, in at least one case, a $1,000 Chinese-made motorcycle – or much else unobtainable or prohibitively expensive in Gaza.
Kifa Zorab, 33, married with her five children in tow, was excited to be crossing the border to see her family in Egyptian Rafah. "We are going to see my mother-in-law," she explained with a smile. "Half my loved ones are in Gaza, and half on the other side. We're so happy; we're so relieved. It feels like a festival, like the Eid. And the Eid [the great mid-winter Muslim festival of Eid al Adha, where in normal times children are showered with gifts] was not good this year."
Inside the ironically still closed and guarded official border terminal, a uniformed Hamas "Brigadier General" stood beside Dr Atef Mohammed, a senior pharmacist waiting for his staff to bring urgently needed medicines back across the border. "It's excellent," said the Brigadier. "We have no problem with the Egyptians." He insisted that "nothing was planned".
True or not, civilian Mohammed Al Qadi, 55 summed up the outcome as he handed out Egyptian sweet wafers to everyone. "We felt it was a prison," he said with more optimism than certainty, "And now the prison gates have been opened."
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