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Egypt police block Gaza motorists from entering Sinai

By Amir Oren, Haaretz Correspondent, and News Agencies

samedi 26 janvier 2008

Tags : Hamas, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

Egyptian riot police and armored vehicles blocked Gaza cars from entering Egypt on Saturday, a day after Hamas militants using bulldozers had widened a border breach to make it easier for vehicles to cross.

Dozens of riot police formed human chains, blocking two passages through the breached border used by cars, and several Egyptian armored vehicles took up positions to back up the troops. Two more armored vehicles blocked roads in the Egyptian border town of Rafah.

The deployment marked the second attempt by Egypt in two days to regain control over the border, which was breached Wednesday when Hamas militants blew down the border wall, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flood into Egypt.

Israel, meanwhile, expressed growing concern about the possible influx of Palestinian militants into areas of Egypt that border Israel. The Israeli
military announced Saturday that its troops are on heightened alert along the Egypt-Israel border, and that an Israeli road and tourism sites in the area are temporarily closed.

Early Saturday, hundreds of Gaza cars crossed into Egypt.

However, Egyptian police set up checkpoints after the border, and Palestinians could drive no further than the coastal town of El Arish, about 35 kilometers from Gaza. In getting to El Arish, Palestinian motorists had to use side roads to avoid Egyptian police checkpoints.

Hundreds of cars with Gaza license plates were seen in El Arish on Saturday, many lining up at gas stations. An elderly Gaza man, Saleh Abu Ghosheh, stood in one of the lines, hoping that a gasoline tanker would eventually arrive to refill the station.

Abu Ghosheh said he was worried the tanker would not show, and that he would have wasted precious fuel getting to El Arish. Still, he said, the trip was not in vain. « It’s worth it, at least I bought a goat, dairy products and some items for my children, » he said.

Egyptian police on the border with the Gaza Strip abandoned their positions Friday after failing to reseal the breached frontier with human chains, guard dogs and water cannons. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have streamed over the border in the past few days after militants in the strip smashed through the fence separating it from Egypt.

In a direct challenge to Cairo, Hamas militants on Friday morning used a bulldozer to knock over a new section of the border wall. Hamas vowed to keep breaches in the border wall open until crossings into the Strip are reopened.

« The gaps shouldn’t be closed because they provide urgent assistance to the Palestinians, » said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Egyptian security personnel had initially deployed Friday along the border in a human chain - in some places as many as nine rows deep - and Palestinians were reportedly told the frontier would be sealed by 7 P.M. local time.

Clashes ensued however, and Egyptian forces took up positions a few steps into Palestinian territory, using shields to protect themselves from some Gazans who climbed atop car roofs and threw stones at them. Witnesses said a photographer was lightly injured in the clash.

At one point guards aimed a water cannon above the heads of people, not at them, to keep them back.

An Egyptian soldier was reported slightly wounded in the leg, likely from gunshots fired by Hamas militiamen sporadically from the Gazan side, said an Egyptian officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.

Five policemen were also injured by stones hurled by Gazans protesting the attempts to restrict their movement into Egypt.

By mid-afternoon, Egypt eased up on the attempts to restrict the cross-border movement. Hundreds of riot police suddenly left a border crossing at Rafah, to march back into the Egyptian side of the divided town, and Gazans again streamed by the hundreds through the regular crossing.

Mubarak : Gaza situation unacceptable, Israel must lift siege
In an interview published Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the situation in Gaza unacceptable and called on Israel to lift the blockade and solve the problem.

« They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings, » Mubarak told the weekly Al-Osboa. He also invited rival Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks, but did not mention a date.

Yousef Mohammed, 17, from Gaza, said he had waited until Friday to make the trip because he was trying to get together enough money first to shop in Egypt. « They don’t want us to go in, » he said, pointing at the riot police.

Egyptian Amira Ali, 39, carrying her toddler son and holding a 6-year-old son by the hand, said she wants to visit her mother-in-law in Gaza. « Of course, I’m afraid [of being trapped in Gaza], but will try to go for a while so my mother-in-law can see the kids, » she said.

The border was breached Wednesday, when Palestinian militants blew down large sections of the border wall. Since then, Egypt has allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to go back and forth, but has rejected any suggestion of assuming responsibility for the crowded, impoverished territory.

The opening of the border, even if temporary, 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.

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.

IDF closes hiking trails, tourist sites near border
The Israel Defense Forces announced a temporary closure of all tourist trails and sites near the Israel-Egypt border early on Saturday. The moves comes as defense officials warn of possible terrorist attacks emanating from Sinai.

Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip have used the newly open border with Egypt to send numerous terrorists into the Sinai peninsula over the last two days, with the goal of then sending them from Sinai into Israel to commit attacks, defense officials said Thursday.

As a result, the section of Highway 10 abutting the Israel-Egypt border has been blocked to traffic. In addition, authorities have sealed off hiker trails, including the Agur Sands, Be’er Milha, the Be’erotaim area, the Azuz region, Burot Lotz, Nahal Akrav, Nahal Eilot, Har Ramon, the Arod passage, Har Sagi, Har Karkum, Sha’ar Znifim, the Eilat hills, Ein Netafim, Nahal Zfahot, Nahal Shlomo, Nahal Yehosafat, Nahal Gershon, Nahal Shani, and Hakenyon Headom.

The IDF, the police and the Shin Bet security service have consequently beefed up their forces and their alert level along the Israeli-Egyptian border in an effort to thwart infiltrations. Should terrorists succeed in entering Israel from Sinai, one defense official said, they might commit suicide bombings, kidnap soldiers or civilians, or attack small agricultural communities or military outposts.

In addition, the counterterrorism unit in the Prime Minister’s Office warned Israelis against visiting Sinai and urged those who are already there to leave, since the flow of terrorists from Gaza also increases the likelihood of terror attacks in Sinai’s tourist resorts. Egypt is also worried about the possibility of terror attacks in Sinai.

One member of the counterterrorism unit noted that the open border not only enables terrorists to enter Sinai, but would also make it easier for them to smuggle an abducted Israeli back into Gaza.

Barak Ravid and Yuval Azoulay contributed to this report.