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By Challiss McDonough
Cairo
23 January 2008

Residents of the Gaza Strip have flooded across the border into Egypt to stock up on food and other supplies after militants blew a huge hole in the border barricade, eventually opening the wall completely.  The Egyptian president ordered his security forces to let them pass.  An Israeli blockade of Gaza was eased a day earlier.  VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Palestinians walk next to the fence marking the border between the southern Gaza Strip, left, and Egypt after it was destroyed by Palestinian militants, 23 Jan 2008
Palestinians walk next to the fence marking the border between the southern Gaza Strip, left, and Egypt after it was destroyed by Palestinian militants, 23 Jan 2008
Tens of thousands of Palestinians poured across the border into Egypt after militants blew up about 200 meters of the metal border wall before dawn.

The Palestinians bought food, medicine, fuel and other vital supplies that have been in short supply in Gaza since the blockade began.  But they also snapped up cell phones, televisions and cigarettes, in some cases saying they hoped to re-sell the goods on the other side of the border.  Egyptian shopkeepers and local residents said store shelves were wiped clean.

Witnesses said Egyptian border guards watched the crowds enter, but made no effort to stop them, unlike a day earlier when scuffles broke out as protesters tried to break through.

Speaking to reporters in Cairo, President Hosni Mubarak said he had ordered security forces at the border to let the Palestinians cross.

Egyptian security personnel (R) watch as Palestinians cross the border into Egypt after militants exploded the separated wall between Gaza Strip and Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 23 Jan 2008
Egyptian security personnel (R) watch as Palestinians cross the border into Egypt after militants exploded the separated wall between Gaza Strip and Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 23 Jan 2008
He said he told security forces to let them come in to buy food, and then escort them back "as long as they are not carrying weapons."

The news from the border came as Egyptian security forces cracked down on protests in Cairo against the Israeli blockade of Gaza.  A large rally downtown was quickly dispersed.  Police arrested hundreds of people before and during the protests, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel on Tuesday eased a blockade that had cut off fuel supplies to Gaza since late last week.  Rafah is the only Gaza border post not controlled by Israel.  It has been almost completely shut down since June, when Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip and ousted the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel has often criticized Egypt's efforts to control the Gaza border, saying it has been used to smuggle weapons and cash to reinforce Hamas.  Egypt has rejected the criticism, and the issue has considerably strained relations between the two countries in recent months.

Meanwhile, Hamas leaders now say they are willing to hold talks with Fatah over the border issue.

In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal spoke at a three-day summit of Palestinian factions opposed to peace with Israel.

He said Hamas is ready to strike a deal with Egypt and his Ramallah-based rivals from Fatah to administer the border crossing.  He added, "We do not want to control anything. We want liberty and relief for our Palestinian people."

He also called on Arab states to help lift the siege of Gaza and keep the Rafah border post permanently open.  He compared it to the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt and the oil industries of the Gulf States.

Under a 2005 deal to open the border, the European Union is supposed to supervise the Rafah crossing, which was until June run by Fatah.  But the EU monitors withdrew when Hamas took over Gaza and say they will not return as long as the group remains in control.  EU policy is not to deal with Hamas, which the EU considers a terrorist organization.

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