Tim McGirk/ Time Magazine & James Hider / The Times – 2008-01-23 21:42:03
Hamas Beats Israel’s Gaza Siege
Tim McGirk/ Time Magazine
RAFAG CROSSING (January 23, 2008) — It took explosives to do what diplomacy couldn’t: allow Palestinians to go on a shopping spree. The siege of Gaza, imposed by Israel and the international community after Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory last July, ended abruptly before dawn on Wednesday when militants blew as many as 15 holes in the border wall separating the territory from Egypt. In the hours that followed, over 350,000 Palestinians swarmed across the frontier, nearly one fifth of Gaza’s entire population.
Some Palestinians craved medicine and food — goats appeared to be a hot item — because Israel had cut off most supplies from entering Gaza as punishment for militants’ firing rockets into southern Israel. Students and businessmen joined the throng heading for Egypt. There were scores of brides-to-be, stuck on the Egyptian side, who scurried across to be united with their future bridegrooms in Gaza. And some, like teacher Abu Bakr, stepped through a blast hole into Egypt simply “to enjoy the air of freedom.”
The previous day, President Housni Mubarak faced the wrath of the Arab world when his riot police used clubs and water hoses to attack Palestinian women pleading for Egypt to open the Rafah crossing in Gaza. And despite pressure from Israel and the United States, Mubarak wasn’t about to order his men to use force to restrain Palestinians rendered desperate by Israel’s siege. The Egyptian President said he ordered his troops to “let them come to eat and buy food and go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons.”
At 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Palestinian militants detonated explosive charges knocking out slabs in the 26-foot concrete border wall, and by dawn, Gazans were racing to the open border on donkey carts and tractors and in cars. Once through the holes, they trampled across barbed wire, vaulted over fences and picked their way gingerly through cactus. Many carried heavy suitcases and said that they were never coming back to captivity in Gaza.
But most Gazans were in a mad scramble to go shopping, and they returned with everything from goats to tires to jerricans full of gasoline. One stout woman in a veil threaded nimbly through barbed wire with a tray of canned fruit balanced on her head. The Palestinians cleaned out every shop on the Egyptian side: By afternoon, there was nothing to buy within a six-mile distance of the border; and even the Sinai town of El- Arish, three hours drive away, had been sucked dry of gasoline. One taxi driver who brought back cartons of cigarettes and gallons of gas to resell for a profit in Gaza said, “This should help feed my family for several months.”
Israel expressed fears that Hamas militants would use the breach in the border to bring in weapons. One Palestinian said he witnessed dozens of Hamas men who had been stuck in Egypt for months crossing into Gaza. Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aryeh Mekel told newsmen, “We have real concerns that they can now freely smuggle explosives, missiles and people into Gaza, which makes an already bad situation even worse.”
Hamas moved quickly to capitalize on the mass celebration of the border’s breach. The movement’s parliamentary leader, Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt to join in urgent talks to find a formula for keeping the Gaza-Egypt border permanently open. Haniyeh said Hamas was prepared to set up joint control of the border with the President’s forces, bringing an end to hostilities between the two factions that erupted last July when Hamas militants chased the President’s Fatah militia out of Gaza.
Now that Gazans have exploded out of their besieged enclave, it may be up to Israel to seal up the border again, since the Egyptians are showing no signs of doing so. Israel had put the economic squeeze on Gaza’s 1.5 million people — a policy described as “collective punishment” by many aid organizations — hoping it would turn the Palestinians against Hamas. But with the siege broken, even if temporarily, Hamas has earned the gratitude of hungry Palestinians and reinvigorated its popularity in Gaza.
Hamas ‘Spent Months Cutting through
Gaza Wall in Secret Operation’
James Hider / The Times
RAFAH BORDER CROSSING (January 24, 2008) — As tens of thousands of Palestinians clambered back and forth between the Gaza strip and Egypt today, details emerged of the audacious operation that brought down a hated border wall and handed the Islamist group Hamas what might be its greatest propaganda coup.
Hamas, which took control of the coastal territory last June after a stand-off with Fatah, has denied that its men set off the explosions that brought down as much as two-thirds of the 12-km wall in the early hours.
But a Hamas border guard interviewed by The Times at the border admitted that the Islamist group was responsible and had been involved for months in slicing through the heavy metal wall using oxy-acetylene cutting torches.
That meant that when the explosive charges were set off in 17 different locations between midnight and 1am the 40ft wall came tumbling down, leaving it lying like a broken concertina down the middle of no-man’s land as an estimated 350,000 Gazans flooded into Egypt.
The guard, Lieutenant Abu Usama of the Palestinian National Security, said of the cutting operation: “I’ve seen this happening over the last few months. It happened in the daytime but was covered up so that nobody would see.”
Asked whether he had reported it to the government, he replied: “It was the government that was doing this. Who would I report it to?”
Abu Usama, who normally works from a small guard cabin in no-man’s land, added: “Last night we were told to keep away from the wall. We were ordered to stay away because they were going to break the blockade.”
As Gazans flooded into Egypt, the strip’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, called for an urgent meeting with his rivals in Fatah and with the Egyptian authorities to work a new border arrangement.
Mr Haniya called for the border crossing to be reopened “on the basis of national participation,” meaning that Hamas would be prepared to cede some control to President Abbas and his Fatah-led government in the West Bank. “We don’t want to be the only ones in control of these matters,” Mr Haniya said, speaking from his Gaza City office live on Hamas TV.
“Everything Haniya is saying is simply to exploit this situation to win political gains. … It is a part of the problem, not the solution,” said Ashraf Ajramim, a Cabinet minister in Mr Abbas’s government. Israel refused to comment on the developments in Gaza.
The skill of the Hamas demolition operation was clear to see along the border, although The Times could not visit the entire length of the border. Where the charges had been laid, the wall was heavily damaged. Elsewhere it appeared to be clearly cut.
The destruction of the wall prompted hundreds of thousands to cross into Egypt – and Egyptian border guards did not try to stem the tide of humanity.
Instead Rafah became a huge Middle Eastern bazaar. Thousands of people were herding back cows, sheep and even camels from Egypt into the Gaza strip. Others brought back motorbikes while many women lugged back cans of olive oil and men could be seen weighed down with jerry-cans full of fuel.
Moneychangers flocked to the border, offering Egyptian pounds and American dollars for the Gazans’ Israeli shekels. The shops soon began to run out, however, and those returning were complaining of sky-rocketing prices.
Instead, many people jumped into taxis – or even on the roofs of taxis – to take themselves to El Arish, 45km away, the nearest town with shops.
In no-man’s land, along the stretch that the Israelis used to call Philadelphia Road before their disengagement in 2005, Hamas gunmen raced along in pick-up trucks flying the group’s green flag. Egyptian riot police waited by the gates of the old border crossing, leaning with nonchalance against their riot shields.
Among those returning were Osama Hassan, 25, who went shopping with his 17-year-old fiancee Sarah for their wedding essentials. He bought a special mattress for his injured back; she brought kitchen supplies.
“I’m Fatah, but today, I wish I could see (Hamas prime minister Ismail) Haniya and kiss his forehead, because without the gunmen doing this, we would have been stuck in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Egyptian shopkeepers swiftly raised prices of milk, taxi rides and cigarettes, but that did not deter the Gazans, for many of whom it was their first trip out of the territory.
Some staggered back into Gaza carrying televisions, and others sported brand-new mobile phones. In Gaza City, prices of cigarettes – which had skyrocketed during the total blockade of the past week – fell by 70 per cent in a few hours.
Rami al-Shawwa, a 23-year old falafel vendor, said he planned to head to Egypt in the afternoon, after his brothers returned from there. He was going to buy waterpipe tobacco and just “smell some new air”.
“We have been living in darkness for days, and closure before,” he said, adding that he is not concerned about getting stuck in Egypt. “For my 23 years in Gaza, a year in Egypt will make up for it.”
© Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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