RAFAH, Gaza (AFP) – Thousands of Gazans poured into Egypt on Wednesday after militants set off at least 15 explosions along the border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“Although they have crossed illegally, it has not yet been decided how to deal with them,” one security source said, and Egyptian General Ahmed Abdel Hamid ordered a full alert in the area, the official MENA agency reported.
Parts of the barrier separating Egypt and the Gaza Strip were knocked down by a bulldozer, allowing the Palestinians to cross freely into Egypt from the impoverished territory that has been under a tight Israeli blockade for months.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Cairo said the situation was “chaotic.”
“We are ready to take action with our partners in the Egyptian Red Crescent in case there is an influx of displaced or refugees,” the head of the ICRC delegation in Cairo Gerard Peytrignerhe told AFP.
Crowds of Palestinians walked the streets of Rafah as shops opened early to serve the thousands of people who stormed across the frontier.
Empty cars and donkey carts streamed to the Egyptian side before returning to Gaza weighed down with goods bought at prices far below those inside Gaza, hoping to make a profit.
“I brought all the money that I had, around 100 dollars. I am going to buy cigarettes here and then resell them in Gaza. And if I can I’ll come back during the day to buy more cartons,” Ahmed Halaweh told AFP.
Apart from food and cigarettes, people were stocking up on electronic products, with cell phones and televisions disappearing off store shelves.
Some 2,000 Egyptian security personnel on the frontier did not intervene, but all side roads in Rafah were closed in a bid to control the flow of people, the Egyptian security source said.
The breakout came just hours after a tense stand-off at the closed Rafah border crossing, where gunfire erupted after a group of Hamas demonstrators, mostly women, forced their way across.
They had been demonstrating against a months-long Israeli blockade that was tightened six days ago to a full-scale lockdown, with Israel halting all fuel shipments and even the entry of humanitarian aid.
The Hamas-run government in Gaza has repeatedly urged Egypt to open the border to relieve the Israeli blockade, which is aimed at halting rocket and mortar fire on nearby Israeli communities.
On Tuesday Israel allowed in shipments of cooking gas and fuel to power Gaza’s sole power station, which ground to a halt on Sunday night, plunging much of Gaza City into darkness and prompting fears of a humanitarian crisis.
But the Palestinians have demanded a complete end to the siege.
“This is insufficient and we will continue our efforts to get a total lifting of the blockade,” Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose security forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas last June, told reporters on Tuesday.
International humanitarian organisations have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster if Israel continues to close off Gaza to all but vital goods.
“The blockade measures have an enormous human cost and we have asked Israel to immediately lift all retaliatory measures,” Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in Geneva.
On Tuesday an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council failed to produce a statement on the Gaza conflict that took into account the impact of the blockade and Palestinian militants’ firing of rockets into Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Tuesday that Israel does not need “to apologise for protecting its citizens. Israel will continue to act and fulfill its commitment to its citizens even at the price of condemnation.”
In the past week Israel has killed at least 38 Palestinians — most of them militants — in strikes on armed groups have launched more than 200 rockets and mortars into Israel, slightly wounding 10 people.