Egyptians move to shut border with Gaza

( AP ) - Egyptian border guards moved to close the border with the Gaza Strip on Friday, forming a human chain and blocking movement of Palestinians into Egypt with their riot shields, eyewitnesses said.

The Egyptians were allowing passage only to Palestinians seeking to return to the strip after visiting Egypt in the wake of the demolition of large stretches of the border wall by Hamas militants.

Egyptian officials had warned earlier that Gazans' brief bliss of freedom, shopping and visiting relatives would soon end with the resealing of the border.

On Thursday, for the second day in a row, scenes of frenzy, chaos and joy played out at the border. Guards channeled crowds through a handful of openings, where Palestinians pushed, shouted, and jostled their way into Egypt, braving a gauntlet of cows, camels, fertilizer, food and truckloads of cement.

The scene did not play out without violence: Israeli aircraft killed four Hamas militants overnight in missile strikes around the border town of Rafah, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Friday.

Two Hamas militiamen were killed as they drove near the shattered border fence with Egypt and two more were killed while driving in Rafah town, Palestinian security officials said. The Israeli military described both strikes as being against "terrorists".In what looked like a first step toward restoring a border, Egyptian security forces turned back Palestinians who attempted to travel deeper into Egypt - though they did nothing to stem the flow of Egyptian goods making their way to the frontier region to replenish rapidly depleting stocks.

Dozens of Hamas militants dressed in black stood on the Gaza side of the border, in front of the fallen wall, checking people's bags and packages for weapons, drugs and other prohibited items as they re-entered Gaza.

As the presence of Egyptian and Hamas security forces grew, so did the crowds, as Gazans sought to stock up on basic supplies before Egypt made good on its word to reseal the frontier.

By all accounts, this week's breaching of the Gaza-Egypt border has provided a significant popularity boost to Gaza's Hamas rulers, who can claim they successfully broke through the internationally supported Israeli closure that has deprived the coastal strip of normal trade and commerce for nearly two years.

"Hamas has won the strategic battle," said Abu Ali, a 45-year-old Gazan dressed in a business suit, who was on the Egyptian side to buy materials for his construction company.

"Ask anyone here how they reached this place, and they will tell you it was because of Hamas."

Others, however, acknowledged that a temporary border breach did not constitute a solution to Gaza's growing isolation.

"In another day or so the border will be closed again. This is not a practical solution. We want Hamas to get us an official, working border," said 26-year-old Bahij Najar.

Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June.

Najar and others said they hoped the temporary opening, created after Palestinian militants used explosives Wednesday to blast down the border wall, would become permanent.

The issue turned into a verbal spat between Egypt and Israel when Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel gradually wants to relinquish responsibility for Gaza, now that the territory's border with Egypt had been blown open.

It was a position echoed by other Israeli officials, who said the border breach could pave the way for increasingly disconnecting from the territory. However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking to The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, said he didn't want to "go too far in my interpretation of this."

Egypt angrily rejected the Israeli ideas and said it would not change border arrangements.

"The border will go back as normal," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki. "The current situation is only an exception and for temporary reasons."

Warning that militants were among the Palestinians who entered Egypt, the Israeli military raised its level of alert Thursday, fearing an attack on Israel. The military closed the highway along the Israel-Egypt border.

Egypt began positioning armored vehicles Thursday along sections of the breached, seven-mile frontier.

In a previous major breach, after the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, Egypt closed the border after four days. Gazans were issued a deadline for returning home, and Egyptian troops searched for, detained and fined stragglers who were then sent to their side of the border.

Egypt also lined up armored personnel carriers and riot police as a makeshift border barrier, and eventually rebuilt a small border fence.

This time, however, Palestinian militants destroyed the major border wall, which might slow Egyptian efforts to seal the frontier.

Egypt would presumably need Hamas' cooperation in securing the border, but Hamas official Salah Bardawil told the AP on Thursday that the torn-down wall need not be replaced. Instead, he said, Egypt should reinforce a smaller border fence that already exists on its side.

Hamas has used the breach - carefully planned, with militants weakening the metal wall with blow torches about a month before blowing it up with a series of blasts - to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions against the Islamic militants.

However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants - despite the fact that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been under intense public pressure at home in recent days to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who visited Israel on Thursday, said that while Hamas was to blame for Gaza's shortages, it was up to Egypt to restore order at the frontier.

"We have great sympathy for the thousands of Palestinian civilians who have suffered because of this crisis," Burns told reporters in Jerusalem. "We see the residents of Gaza as victims of the poor leadership of Hamas."

At one point, while the Palestinians were crossing the border freely, they were not being allowed to travel beyond El Arish, which lies slightly beyond Rafah.

Egyptian border guards were patrolling access roads to the border Thursday. Police in helmets and with sniffer dogs used batons to beat the hoods of private cars and pickup trucks that massed at the border to carry Palestinians further into Egyptian territory.

Other guards lined the makeshift border passages and steered the crowds.

"Everyone is rushing into Egypt before they seal it off," said Mohammed Abu Amra, a Palestinian walking with crutches. He slipped and fell as he passed into Egypt.

"I fell because everyone is pushing, everyone is rushing," he said, dusting off his pants.

In downtown Rafah, Palestinians could be seen buying cows, camels and horses and leading them back through the passage into Gaza. Men loaded with electronics equipment struggled to step through the broken opening.

Badr Abu Rekaa, a 52-year-old woman from central Gaza, came to Egypt to find cement to build a proper Muslim grave for her son, who was killed several months ago in Hamas-Fatah infighting. She said acute shortages in Gaza were behind the border breach.

"The more we are squeezed, the more we will explode," she said.

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