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By Jim Teeple
Gaza
24 January 2008

Palestinians by the thousands continue to pour across the now open border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt - shopping, visiting relatives and enjoying their new-found freedom of movement. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Gaza that Egyptian troops are increasing security in a bid to control the chaos along the border, and most people in Gaza believe their border with Egypt will be closed again very soon.

A Palestinian carries a wheelchair bought in Egypt across the border back to Gaza, 24 Jan 2008
A Palestinian carries a wheelchair bought in Egypt across the border back to Gaza, 24 Jan 2008
The once impregnable border between Gaza and Egypt seems a distant memory as tens of thousands of people flood in both directions across the remnants of a huge steel wall. It was constructed by Israeli military engineers to last for decades and toppled early Wednesday. Since then, Palestinians have been pouring into the Egyptian border town of Rafah, buying everything in sight.

Egyptian merchants are doing their best to serve this brand new market. Shopkeeper Sayed says he was surprised when a 200-meter section of the Gaza border wall came down early Wednesday. Since then, he has sold more than $7,000 worth of merchandise from his store on Rafah's main street.

Sayed says he was not ready for the thousands of Palestinians who converged on his small shop, and he was surprised by how badly they needed basic goods.

As thousands of Palestinians pour into Rafah, and Egyptians pour into the town to sell them everything from goats to motorcycles to cement, Egyptian security forces have moved into the town in force - sealing Rafah's outer borders to keep Palestinians from Gaza from leaving for other parts of Egypt.

Imad Mustapha was a senior Fatah security official in the Palestinian unity government, which was overthrown by Hamas last year as it took control of the Gaza Strip. He says the chaos in Rafah is a concern, but he is enjoying being able to leave Gaza - if only for a few hours.

"In fact I was surprised," said Imad Mustapha. "I did not expect that. It was really something you cannot even see in a dream - just to open the borders between us and Egypt. But it is ok for us just to go out from that big prison."

Israel sealed all of its crossings into the Gaza Strip last week in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel. The move was criticized by many, but Israel says it proved effective and that it will keep the borders sealed except for humanitarian aid. The Gaza Strip has been under international embargo ever since Hamas ousted Fatah forces from the area last June.

Mustapha says he believes the Egyptians will seal its border soon, and Gazans will return to their "prison" as he puts it.

That belief is shared by nearly everyone now converging on Rafah, and by senior Hamas leaders like Ahmed Yousef. Yousef says Hamas would like Egypt to take this opportunity to try and broker reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.

"We never stopped talking to the Egyptians," said Ahmed Yousef. "From day one after the takeover [of Gaza by Hamas], we talked to them, and tried to explain to them what happened. We told them, we are not going to have a Gaza state, but are willing to have unity among the Palestinians, to keep Gaza and the West Bank as a Palestinian state. And, if they are willing, we would like them to mediate the situation between Fatah and Hamas to reconcile the rift between the brothers in Fatah and Hamas."

For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says his Fatah forces are willing to assume security at Gaza's border crossings, but a reconciliation with Hamas will only come when Hamas agrees to restore his governing authority in Gaza.

Hamas leaders like Ahmed Yousef also deny responsibility for bringing down the Gaza border wall. Yousef says who brought down the wall is not important, but why it was brought down is. He says Muslims around the world were outraged by what was happening in Gaza, and that is why the Gaza border wall came down.

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