Egypt riot police prevent Gazans from leaving Rafah

Sunday, January 27, 2008

RAFAH, Egypt -- In its first public criticism of Gaza's Hamas rulers, Egypt complained Saturday of "provocations" during the Gaza-Egypt border crisis and said more than three dozen members of its security forces were hospitalized as a result.

The border, which was initially breached by Hamas militants, remained open for a fourth day, though Egyptian security forces blocked Gazans from driving beyond the border town of Rafah itself.

Egyptian border guards are now authorized to return fire if attacked, said a security official speaking on customary condition of anonymity on the Egyptian side of Rafah. Over the past two days, 38 Egyptian security forces have been wounded -- some seriously -- after Palestinians hurled stones and shot at them at the border, Egypt's foreign minister said.

"These provocations cause us concern and our Palestinian brothers should note that the Egyptian decision to host them and ease their suffering should not result in threats to the lives of our sons in the Egyptian forces," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters after an emergency meeting in Cairo.

Israel, meanwhile, has expressed growing concern about the possible influx of Palestinian militants into areas of Egypt that border Israel. The Israeli military announced Saturday that its troops were on heightened alert along the border with Egypt, and that an Israeli road and tourism sites in the area are temporarily closed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to meet in Jerusalem on Sunday, and the border crisis was sure to be discussed.

Egyptian troops have tried several times to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians through the breached border wall. On Friday, there were reports of Palestinians throwing stones and even shooting at the border guards and riot police.

Aboul Gheit said the decision to keep the border open stands, but Egyptian forces stopped Palestinian cars from proceeding any further into the Sinai Peninsula after Rafah, forcing thousands to walk to the coast town of El-Arish, located about 20 miles away from the border.

Armored personnel carriers blocking the roads out of Rafah turned traffic in the divided city into a honking gridlock as cars carrying Palestinians continued to drive over the border to visit relatives and buy food and livestock.

"Three days is not enough. Let us do our business before they reclose it, and nobody is doing us any favors here. We are paying a lot of money. We are not stealing anybody's property," said Amr, a middle-aged Palestinian haggling over a pair of camels. He later bought them for $2,000 and led them back over the border.

Aboul Gheit renewed Egypt's invitation for Fatah and Hamas to resume dialogue, one day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered to host talks between the leaders of the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas said it would attend talks -- but also urged Egypt to keep the borders open.

"We have announced our acceptance of President Mubarak's esteemed invitation without conditions and under Egyptian sponsorship," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview in Damascus.

Hamas hard-liner Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters that Hamas wants Egypt to take an "urgent and fast decision to open the crossing."

But Abbas stuck to his tough conditions for resuming contacts with Gaza's Hamas rulers, dimming prospects for Egypt's proposal to have the two Palestinian opponents come to Cairo.

Abbas insists he will only talk to Hamas if it retreats from its violent June takeover of Gaza, something Hamas is unlikely to do. Abbas renewed his offer of deploying his forces at the Gaza crossings, as a way of ending the closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.

The border breach provided a significant popularity boost to Hamas, which can claim it successfully broke through the closure that has deprived the coastal territory of normal trade and commerce.

Egypt has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory -- a hot issue in light of comments this week by Israeli officials who said the border breach could relieve Israel of its burdens in Gaza.

Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the territory in 2005, but it still controls access to Gaza, including Gaza's airspace and coastline. Israel also provides the fuel needed to run Gaza's only power plant. It has recently withheld that fuel, causing severe power outages.

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