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by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Egypt Seals Gaza Border At Israel's Demand (2005)

(IPS) CAIRO -- Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flocked into the Sinai Peninsula last week after the border fence separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip was partially destroyed by a series of explosions. In a direct challenge to the Israeli-imposed siege of the territory, Cairo -- citing humanitarian concerns -- appears to have tolerated the influx.

"The Egyptian government's decision to sanction the breach was based on humanitarian considerations in light of the ongoing Israeli embargo of Gaza," Ayman Abelaziz Salaama, professor of international law at Cairo University told IPS. "The decision is widely supported by the Egyptian public and by all political stripes."

On the morning of Jan. 23, the 14-kilometre border fence running through the divided city of Rafah was blown up at several places by unknown perpetrators. Almost immediately, tens of thousands of Gazans -- on foot, in cars and on donkey carts -- poured through the breaches into Egyptian territory.

According to witnesses at the scene, Egyptian authorities took no action to stop incoming traffic.

"When the huge crowds began coming in, Egyptian security personnel were told to let them through," Hatem al-Buluk, a journalist and resident of al-Arish, located some 40 kilometres west of Rafah, told IPS. "Thereafter, border police confined their actions to watching for people carrying weapons."

Under the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, the Egyptian security presence on the frontier is strictly limited to a maximum of 750 border police.

The border crossing at Rafah has traditionally served as the sole transit point along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip. In June of last year, however, days before control of the strip was taken over by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, the Egyptian government sealed the Rafah terminal.

According to Cairo, the closure was precipitated by the departure of European Union observers mandated to monitor Egypt-Gaza border traffic under the terms of a 2005 trilateral security arrangement between Israel, Egypt and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA).

The closure effectively eliminated the Gaza Strip's only sovereign route to the outside world. Virtually all other crossings in or out of the territory have been sealed by Israeli authorities.

In hope of maintaining geographic isolation of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel -- which calls Hamas a "terrorist organization" -- has consistently pressed Egypt to maintain the border closure. Until now, Cairo has largely complied with the request, despite frequent calls by Hamas to reopen the crossing at Rafah.

The grim situation in the Gaza Strip has been further compounded by a crippling, almost two-year-long embargo that has plunged the territory's estimated 1.5 million residents into a humanitarian crisis. Backed by Israel and the U.S., the siege has deprived the territory of badly needed monies and vital supplies, including basic foodstuffs, fuel and medicine.

"The situation is a very painful one," Salaama said. "Along with constant Israeli military actions, Gazans -- including women and children -- have been deprived of the most basic commodities as a result of the siege."

Palestinians swarming across the frontier, therefore, rushed to stock up on essential goods available on the Egyptian side of the border.

"Within six hours, every store and pharmacy in the area was emptied of its merchandise, including food, milk, medicines and fuel," said al-Buluk.

On the same day, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, citing the besieged Gazans' difficult state of affairs, said he had taken the decision to allow desperate Gazans entry into Egypt.

"The Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege," Mubarak told reporters. "I told (the border authorities) to let them come in and buy long as they weren't carrying weapons."

Tel Aviv, however, was quick to register its displeasure with Cairo's lenient reaction to the breach.

"It is the responsibility of Egypt to ensure that the border operates properly, according to the signed agreements," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel was quoted as saying in reference to the 2005 Egypt-Israel-PA border scheme. "We expect the Egyptians to solve the problem."

The leadership of Hamas, for its part, blamed the development on the unbearable circumstances imposed by the harsh Israeli blockade.

"The destruction of the border wall is a reflection of the...catastrophic situation that the Palestinian people in Gaza are living through," the group said in a statement.

Khaled Meshaal, chief of Hamas's Damascus-based politburo, called for the Egypt-Gaza border to be placed under the exclusive authority of Cairo and the Palestinian leadership.

"The most important standard for lifting the siege on Gaza is that the Rafah crossing be opened and be put under Palestinian and Egyptian control," he was quoted as saying.

Meshaal went on to say that the 2005 trilateral agreement -- which includes Israel and excludes Hamas -- should be abrogated, and called on Egypt to reach a new border agreement with Hamas and the PA.

In a Jan. 25 interview in independent weekly al-Esboua, however, Mubarak appeared to pour cold water on the notion of a revised, Hamas-inclusive border scheme.

"They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings," he was quoted as saying.

Nevertheless, Mubarak went on to describe the prevailing situation in the Gaza Strip as "unacceptable," calling on Israel to lift its siege of the beleaguered territory. He also extended an invitation to Palestinian factions -- including Hamas -- to hold talks on the matter in the Egyptian capital.

Despite countrywide protests calling on Cairo to keep the border open to besieged Palestinians, however, Salaama said the breach only constituted an "exception to the status quo."

"Once the Palestinians return to Gaza, the earlier three-way agreement will most likely remain in place," he said. "Egypt didn't sanction the breach in order to help out Hamas.

"The issue remains in the hands of the international community, which must intervene to force Israel to lift the siege," Salaama added.

As of press time, witnesses near the border were reporting that most Gazans were in the process of returning home after having stocked up on essential supplies.

"Most appear to be heading back to Gaza," said al-Buluk, who put the total number of Gazans to have crossed into Sinai within the last four days at more than half a million. He went on to predict that the border situation would return to relative normalcy "within days."

Nevertheless, he did not rule out the possibility of future breaches in light of the continued siege of the territory by Israel.

"Israel is keeping the entire population of Gaza bottled up with no supplies," al-Buluk said. "In these circumstances, sporadic breakthroughs at the border will be inevitable."

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Albion Monitor   January 25, 2008   (

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