( dpa ) - Tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed out of the Gaza Strip and into Egypt early Wednesday, fleeing a tight Israeli blockade and crossing the border through dozens of holes blown in a wall and cut into barbed wire by masked gunmen.
A day after severe clashes at the Rafah border crossing, Egyptian border guards did not intervene and allowed the Palestinians to move on to al-Arish, on the coast some 50 kilometres south-west of Gaza, to buy food, fuel and other scarce supplies.
Streets of al-Arish, as well as the Egyptian side of the divided border town of Rafah and nearby Sheikh Zweid, were filled with Gazans stocking up, Egyptian security officials said.
Palestinians, not finding transport, were seen walking on foot to reach al-Arish.
Others could be seen crossing back into Gaza carrying baskets and goods like mattresses on their backs.
An Israeli government spokesman would only say Israel was "monitoring the situation."
The gunmen of the al-Qassam Brigades - the armed wing of the radical Islamic Hamas movement ruling Gaza - and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) also brought in bulldozers to remove sections of the concrete wall on the Gaza-Egypt border, footage on Palestinian television showed. Witnesses reported as many as 17 explosions along the border and some two-thirds of the border barrier was destroyed.
The thousands of Gazans were escaping an Israeli economic blockade, tightened further after a surge in rocket attacks from the coastal salient at southern Israel last week.
On Tuesday morning, Israel reopened two of its border crossings with the Gaza Strip to humanitarian aid and diesel fuel after nearly four days of a total lock-down.
The diesel was enough to keep Gaza's only local power plant running for one week, as well as generators used in hospitals.
But Israel has said it will keep a tight grip on the Strip until the rocket attacks end.
At least 60 people were injured in the clashes Tuesday between Egyptian security forces and thousands of Hamas supporters, many of them women, protesting on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing.
During the clashes Tuesday, the Egyptian security forces first used water cannons and clubs to beat back the crowd trying to break through the border.
But dramatic television footage showed the Egyptians firing a volley of live ammunition and the crowds suddenly fleeing in the opposite direction, after a Palestinian gunmen climbed on the iron gate and shot in the direction of the guards. Another Palestinian militant was also seen firing his Kalashnikov over the heads of the civilian protesters at the Egyptian security forces.
Five of the wounded were injured by the live ammunition, including a Palestinian woman in critical condition after being shot in the head.
The Hamas-organized demonstrations began at the Rafah crossing point on Monday, with protesters calling for the border to be opened to allow Palestinian patients into Egypt for medical treatment.
Israel tightened the closure on Friday, after militants fired more than 130 rockets and mortar shells at it in three days. Since then the rocket attacks have decreased somewhat, but on Tuesday militants still launched some 22 Gaza-made al-Quds and Nasser rockets from the Strip at Israeli towns and villages, a military spokeswoman said.
Gaza's power plant shut down for nearly 40 hours from Sunday evening, plunging some 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza City and its suburbs into darkness until the new diesel supplies arrived Tuesday.
An Israeli government spokesman, Yariv Ovadiah, confirmed Israel was now following a new policy, under which humanitarian aid and fuel would be allowed into Gaza periodically to avoid a humanitarian crisis, but in minimal amounts.
Before last week's surge in rocket attacks, Israel opened its border crossings with Gaza to larger amounts of basic necessities which "allowed a much more normal life, but here we are trying to increase the pressure," Ovadiah said.
"We don't want to punish the Palestinian people," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "On the other hand we are still suffering every day rocket attacks. The situation is unbearable."
Human rights groups, however, have condemned the closure as collective punishment.
Israeli soldiers meanwhile shot dead a Hamas militant and injured four others in an exchange of fire near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, hospital officials said.