Egypt seals border with Gaza after 11 days

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Egypt has closed the border with the Gaza Strip, ending 11 days of unrestricted movement for Palestinians.

Egyptian security forces used barbed wire and metal barricades to seal the last remaining gaps in the barricade along the border.

Egyptians who were in Gaza are being allowed to return home, and Palestinians on the Egyptian side of the border are still able to go back to Gaza. But no new crossings are being permitted.

Hamas-affiliated militants on the Gaza side of the border have been turning people back and telling them it is closed. There were reports of scuffles with Gazans who still wanted to cross into Egypt, but most reports said the situation remained fairly calm.

A senior Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, said Saturday there had been an agreement between Egypt and Hamas to control the border, and suggested that the closure might be temporary. Egyptian officials have not commented on the existence of any deal with Hamas, but have repeatedly vowed to regain full control of the situation at the border.

Local resident Ibrahim Mohammed Ahmed owns a small grocery shop in Rafah. He spoke to VOA by telephone from the nearby town of Sheikh Zuwayad.

He said the situation is tight and controlled now. The government has closed the entire border in Rafah and all the roads. Every 100 meters there is a checkpoint.

A Palestinian who crossed into Egypt to visit relatives, Essam Ibrahim Issa, spoke to VOA by phone from another small community near Rafah.

He said all the roads are blocked and Egyptian security forces are making Palestinians return to Gaza. He said, They put them in trucks and take them back to Rafah.

Issa said Hamas has indicated that the border will re-open in about a week, and he is hoping for a new agreement that will let him cross into Egypt legally.

He said he would be heading home to Gaza later in the day, but once the border crossing is officially reopened, he wants to return to Egypt legally, allowing him freedom of movement.

The border closure ends 11 days of unrestricted movement across the Egypt-Gaza border. Gunmen in Gaza blew open sections of the border barricade on January 23, days after Israel began imposing a near-total blockade on the territory. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Egypt to buy food and other supplies that had become scarce or expensive in Gaza.

Egyptian security forces set up a cordon around the border town of Rafah, trying to keep Palestinians from moving further into Egypt. Egypt says at least 17 Palestinians have been arrested in Sinai carrying weapons and explosives since the crisis began.

The international community and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority have objected to any border deal involving Hamas, which violently seized control of Gaza in June.

Egypt, however, views the open border as a serious security risk and has pressed Fatah to accept some kind of deal with Hamas in order to see that it remains under control.