Hamas Affirms Time of Israeli Siege Over, Won't Allow People To Be Caged Again
Hamas helps Egypt to reclose Gaza border
By OMAR SINAN, AP, Jan. 28, 2008
RAFAH, Egypt - Hamas militants joined Egyptian forces for a second day Monday in trying to restore control at three breaches in the Gaza border, building a chain-link fence to seal off one opening and directing traffic at two others.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have flooded into Egypt unchecked over the past six days since Hamas militants blasted holes in the border partition. They have been voraciously buying up food, fuel and other goods made scarce by Israeli and Egyptian closures of Gaza's borders.
Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory in June but before the breach, it had no role in policing the border with Egypt. Now the Islamic militant group is hoping that will change now and it is pressing for some kind of future role in border administration.
At a meeting in Cairo, Arab governments were forceful in their opposition to that idea.
Egypt and the foreign ministers of the Arab League have firmly backed the Palestinian Authority led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in its power struggle against rival Hamas. They have called for a return to a 2005 international border monitoring agreement that excluded the Islamist organization entirely.
"They (Hamas) should not interfere. They should just simply get out of the way and allow this to happen," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who heads a rival government in the West Bank, told reporters after returning from Cairo.
In the divided town of Rafah, however, Hamas forces were very much in control.
"There has been continuous and direct cooperation with Egyptian security officials over the last couple of days," said a bearded Hamas security official dressed in blue camouflage and sporting an assault rifle. "They asked us to only allow trucks to enter and not civilian cars to make the operation as orderly as possible."
Traffic was still chaotic on the Egyptian side as more Palestinians poured in to snap up whatever goods they could find.
Food and fuel were in short supply in Gaza since Israel, responding to growing rocket attacks from Gaza, sealed its border days before the militants blasted open the Egyptian frontier further to the south.
The Egyptians deployed about 100 riot police at the two remaining openings Monday.
"Egypt intends to gradually regain control of its border with Gaza and bring the situation back to an acceptable form," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in a message to European countries and the United States.
In Washington, the State Department said it was critical to get the border under control while addressing both the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and Israel's legitimate right to defend itself.
Spokesman Sean McCormack said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke on Sunday to Aboul Gheit. He urged a return to an arrangement Rice brokered in 2005, before Hamas seized Gaza, in which the border was controlled by the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and European monitors.
The arrangement collapsed after Hamas forcibly seized control of Gaza from Fatah in June.
"It's a border that needs to be controlled in some form or fashion and that is previously what we had," McCormack told reporters. "You need to get back to a circumstance where it is under control. It's a very difficult situation," he added.
"We think the Egyptians have a role to play in controlling that border and we shall see what role the Palestinian Authority has in it," McCormack said.
For their part, officials from the EU expressed a willingness to resume their monitoring role under the 2005 agreement, but only if it was under Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas control.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri late Monday called the old arrangement "an international Israeli conspiracy" and warned that the Gazans will not let the border close again.
"Hamas affirms that the time of (Israeli) siege is over, and it will not allow any party to bring back our people to the cage," he said. About Israelis, he said: "Let them come back. They will see death from our people."
Some form of agreement on who controls the border may come on Wednesday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a Hamas delegation will hold separate meetings with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
In violence Monday, Israeli forces shot and killed a 15-year-old Palestinian during a clash in Bethlehem that erupted while the soldiers were conducting an arrest raid, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said soldiers fired at Palestinians throwing firebombs after failing to quell a disturbance with non-lethal methods. The soldiers arrested the local commander of Islamic Jihad.
In Gaza City, meanwhile, 150 young children dressed in white death shrouds marked with the flags of Arab countries marched through the streets calling on the Arab League to lift the blockade on the strip.
"Siegedeath, help Gaza children live a normal life," their banners read.
With much of the Arab world expressing deep sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians, reclosing the borders without some kind of new system allowing the flow of goods and people would be very damaging for the Egyptian government.
Salima al-Masri, a shop owner on the Egyptian side of divided Rafah whose empty shelves attest to the windfall the sudden opening has been to the impoverished border town, said that whatever happens, the border cannot be closed again.
"The only solution for this whole predicament is to announce the reopening of the border crossing and that will get rid of this chaos," she said.
Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah.