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Egypt-Gaza border swings open for business

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- The Egypt-Gaza border was open for business Tuesday: cheap cigarettes, live goats and Egyptian tourists flooded into Gaza, and Gazans celebrating their new freedom rushed to Egyptian seaside resorts.

Any semblance of order along the once heavily guarded frontier disintegrated a day after Israeli troops left Gaza after 38 years.

Israel told Egypt that it was growing concerned about possible weapons smuggling, and Palestinian police promised to begin sealing the border.

The border hopping began soon after Israel pulled out Monday as Palestinian families went to see relatives in on the Egyptian side of Rafah and boys jumped over to buy cigarettes with plans to sell them at a profit in Gaza.

But what had been a trickle turned into a torrent Tuesday as news of the lax border security spread and Palestinians from all over Gaza headed to Rafah to cross into Egypt.

"I hope that they destroy this border and leave us alone," said Gazan Rafat Keshta, 32, who was visiting family on the Egyptian side of the divided town of Rafah.

Palestinians pried open doors in the massive metal security wall left by Israel and squeezed through. Thousands of others walked through gaps in the wall that Israeli tanks used to drive through. The razor wire that topped the short Egyptian wall had been mostly ripped off by Tuesday afternoon.

Fathers lifted their children over the wall, teenage boys helped push elderly women over. Palestinian girls in school uniforms walked through the Egyptian fields holding hands, while men pulled cars beside the wall and filled them with smuggled goods.

"We want to have beer, eat fish, have a little fun and come back," said Ali Bilbesi, 27, who drove in from Gaza City with three friends. "If it's good and we enjoy it, we might stay until tomorrow."

Bilbesi said his father had called to say he was enjoying Egypt's El Arish, 25 miles west of Rafah, the destination of many of the Palestinians who loaded onto trucks, taxis and buses to reach the resort town.

Before Israel withdrew, Egypt agreed to post 750 security officers on the border to prevent militants from smuggling advanced weapons into Gaza for use against the Jewish state. Israel and the Palestinians have not agreed on how and where people and goods will be allowed to move between Gaza and Egypt.

Israel said it talked to Egypt about the chaos, though it understood the Egyptians had not yet fully deployed their border guards.

Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel might eventually seek international monitors for the border.

"The great danger is that both people and arms could be smuggled under the unwatchful eyes of the Egyptians -- that was the whole purpose of coming to this agreement," Shoval said.

Jamal Kaed, the Palestinian commander of southern Gaza, said 1,000 Palestinian police would be sent to the border to patrol and set up roadblocks. By Tuesday afternoon, a bulldozer could be seen lifting a concrete block into place to plug a gap in the wall on the Palestinian side.

Kaed also said the Palestinian forces were seizing marijuana as well as cigarettes and food that was smuggled into Gaza.

But the border was a hectic bazaar Tuesday afternoon.

Gazans returned from Egypt with cases of cigarettes tied to the roof racks of their cars. Others came back with a list of goods that were cheaper in Egypt: children's formula, cheese, jerry cans of gasoline, huge rugs, laundry detergent, fluorescent light bulbs, blenders, nuts and cakes.

One man pushed a refrigerator over the 3-foot-high border wall and another hoisted nearly a dozen goats over as Egyptian soldiers chatted with the Gazans, occasionally searching cases of cigarettes for weapons.

At least one Rafah resident said that amid the chaos, some weapons had crossed to the Palestinian side. But there was no confirmation.

Moneychangers in Gaza did a furious business as Palestinians bought dollars to bring to Egypt.

There were also moments of deep emotion as divided families reunited.

One man fought back tears as he embraced his wife who had come from Egypt. "Thank God I found her," he whispered. Three brothers from Egypt went to the Gaza town of Khan Younis and hugged a cousin they had never met before.

Over the border, Thoraya Ismail -- an Egyptian married to a Palestinian -- wept as she hugged the daughters she had not seen in seven years and met her two young grandchildren.

Most people were elated the border had opened, but Mohammed Hamad, a 50-year-old Gazan, said the disorder was embarrassing.

"It's huge chaos and I want it to stop," he said. "No sane person can think this is good."


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