Reports: Thousands cross Gaza wall

Other News Materials 23 January 2008 10:19 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Thousands of Palestinians poured out of the Gaza Strip and into Egypt early Wednesday after masked gunmen blew dozens of holes in the border wall, witnesses and Hamas security officials said.

Egyptian guards took no action as the Gazans rushed to buy food, fuel and other supplies that have become scarce in Gaza because of an Israeli blockade, the witnesses and officials said. Police from Hamas, which rules Gaza, also stood by.

Israel transferred fuel to restart Gaza's only electricity plant Tuesday, easing its five-day blockade of the Palestinian territory amid growing international concern about a humanitarian crisis.

Before dawn Wednesday, Palestinian gunmen began blowing holes in the border wall. Hamas security later closed all but two but allowed free traffic through them. Gazans began crossing into Egypt and returning with milk, cigarettes and plastic bottles of fuel.

Israel and Egypt have banned most crossings in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in June. Egypt has kept its border closed, tacitly supporting Israel's blockade out of fear of a spillover of Hamas-style militancy to its territory.

The U.S. had warned Israel not to add to the hardship for ordinary Palestinians but blamed the problem on Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers. Israel imposed the siege in response to increasing rocket attacks on its border communities by Gaza militants.

Despite the easing of the closure, Palestinian militants fired 19 rockets toward Israel on Tuesday, the military said, up from just two on Monday.

The lights were back on in most of Gaza City by Tuesday afternoon after a blackout that lasted almost two days. But Gazans still vented their anger.

Hundreds of Hamas supporters briefly broke through the Gaza-Egypt border and clashed with Egyptian riot police who fired in the air, wounding 70 people on both sides. The protesters hurled insults at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, calling him a coward.

In a clash early Wednesday with Israeli forces near the closed Sufa crossing into Gaza, a Hamas militant was killed, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military said soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinian militants in the area.

Pictures of blacked-out Gaza City, children marching mournfully with candles and people lining up at closed bakeries evoked urgent appeals from governments, aid agencies and the U.N. for an end to the closure, though Israel maintained all along that Hamas created an artificial crisis.

The Defense Ministry ruled late Tuesday that 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel will be transferred into Gaza daily, but the crossings will remain closed to other goods and people until further notice.

Throughout the closure, which cut power to a third of Gaza's 1.5 million people, hospitals kept running on generators. But most bakeries shut down, and long lines formed at those that were open. A shipment of cooking gas sent in by Israel on Tuesday sold out in an hour.

Gaza City baker Haj Salman, 68, who uses wood to run his oven, did a booming business. Customers lined up to have homemade bread dough baked in his oven.

One of those waiting for his bread was 22-year-old Sami Othman, whose father, a taxi driver, has been idled by the fuel shortage. Othman said he felt the people of Gaza were being squeezed by the confrontation between Hamas and the rival Fatah.

"They are using us for fuel for their internal fighting and political conflicts," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni blamed Hamas.

"I am not among those who care whether this or that group fired a rocket," she told the annual Herzliya Conference on security. "Hamas has control of the territory, and Hamas is responsible."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration has spoken to Israeli officials "about the importance of not allowing a humanitarian crisis to unfold." Israeli officials were receptive, she said, adding that she too blames Hamas for the situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called for Israel to lift the blockade and prevent a collapse of health and sanitary services.

"Deliveries of essential humanitarian goods must be secured in the long run to prevent more hardship and to avoid the collapse of the already fragile infrastructure," said spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said the shipments would go on.

"We will continue tomorrow and the coming days to deliver more aid to Gaza until all promised supplies get across," he said.

Despite the blockade, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he will not pull out of peace talks. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised President Bush to try to complete a peace accord this year.

"Halting contacts with Israel is useless," Abbas said in his first comment since the latest round of Israel-Hamas fighting erupted last week. "On the contrary, we should intensify our contacts and our meetings to stop the suffering of our people."

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, is not a party to the talks.

Abbas offered to have his rival West Bank government take control of the Palestinian side of Gaza crossings. Israel's refusal to deal with Hamas officials contributed to its decision to severely restrict the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, told The Associated Press the plan was not practical.

"It's a great idea, but they (the Palestinians) can't implement it," he said. Rice said Tuesday the proposal is worth studying.

With the U.N. Security Council due to debate the Gaza situation, Israel's U.N. ambassador Dan Gillerman told The Associated Press that Israel has no intention of harming civilians.

Gillerman, who was attending the Herzliya security conference, said he hoped "common sense will prevail among the Security Council members." And he complained that the Security Council has not convened to discuss the daily rocket barrages at Israel from Gaza, instead waiting until Israel took action to stop them.