RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Hundreds of angry Palestinians streamed into Egypt on Wednesday after militants with stolen bulldozers broke through a border wall, and two Egyptian troops were killed and 30 were wounded by gunfire in the rampage.
About 3,000 Egyptian Interior Ministry troops who initially had no orders to fire swarmed the border but were forced to withdraw about a half-mile, said security forces Lt. Sameh el-Antablyan, who announced the casualties.
Gen. Essam el-Sheikh said Egyptian forces later began firing back.
The scene was one of utter chaos. An Egyptian armored vehicle was burning and hundreds of Palestinians could be seen crouched in farm fields just inside Egypt.
The militants’ rampage through the southern Gaza town of Rafah underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza, and represented the most brazen challenge to the authority of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Earlier, the Egyptian troops fired tear gas and shot into the air. A witness said three Palestinians were injured — one seriously, when a troop carrier crushed him against a wall.
Police imposed a curfew on the Egyptian side, all shops were closed, and authorities cut electricity, plunging the scene in near total darkness.
Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm
Fatah’s prospects in Jan. 25 parliament elections.
The rampage began late Tuesday, after Palestinian intelligence arrested Alaa al-Hams, an Al Aqsa militant, on suspicion he and his followers kidnapped human rights activist Kate Burton and her parents for two days last week. The Burtons were among 19 foreigners abducted by Fatah gunmen in Gaza in recent months. All have been freed unharmed.
Al-Hams’ followers fired at the Palestinian security headquarters in Rafah, where he was held, briefly took over four government buildings, and then drove to the Rafah crossing, which was reopened last month after intense negotiations directed by Secretary of State
Firing in the air, they closed the entrance gate and told waiting passengers to leave. They set up an impromptu checkpoint, turning away travelers, but left the buildings and the crossing after three hours.
The militants then stole two bulldozers in Rafah and led an impromptu parade of hundreds of jubilant residents toward a wall a few hundred yards from the border. Five militants rode in the shovel of one bulldozer, while children held onto the back of the vehicle.
“We are going to do everything we can to pressure the Authority to release our leader,” said an Al Aqsa activist who gave his name as Abu Hassan.
The bulldozers smashed two holes in the towering concrete barrier at the same spot where Hamas militants had blasted through it during the border chaos that followed
Israel’s Gaza pullout in September. Palestinian security officials had closed the earlier hole with a patch of heavy concrete blocks, but those quickly gave way before the bulldozer Wednesday.
Hundreds of Palestinians swarmed into the buffer zone as militants fired in the air.
“Many people walked through. The Palestinian police can’t stop them,” said Fawzi Shaheen, a 26-year old Rafah resident who ran toward the border.
Witnesses said as many as 1,000 Palestinians rushed into Egypt, but Egyptian Brig. Adel Fawzi, director of criminal investigations for North Sinai, put the number at 300.
There are large numbers of divided families in the region, and some used the chaotic situation as an opportunity to reunite with relatives.
Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon, said the unchecked crossings are a violation of the agreement Rice negotiated.
“We will deal with any terrorism that emanates from their territory, and we know how to deal with it,” he said.
The Rafah crossing was handed to Palestinian control, under European supervision, as part of a U.S.-brokered deal with Israel last month. Since then, the crossing was forced to shut down several times during attacks by gunmen.
Israel threatened to close the crossing in coordination with European observers if the breach is not repaired, according to a complaint sent by the Defense Ministry to the United States and the Palestinians, the ministry said.
Israel also asked Egypt to arrest Palestinians who cross from Gaza through the breach. Israel has warned of militants and weapons entering Gaza now that Israel does not have control over the border.
Fatah-affiliated vigilantes demanding government jobs or the release of imprisoned friends have been responsible for much of the anarchy, particularly since Israel’s pullout from Gaza.
Palestinian Authority is turning into the Palestinian Anarchy,” Gissin told The Associated Press. “You have armed gangs that are controlling the fate of 3 million Palestinians.”
The tightly run Islamic Hamas, whose followers have rarely been involved in vigilante violence, is expected to do well in the vote against the corruption-tainted Fatah.
Elsewhere, Palestinian gunmen burst into a Rafah house early Wednesday and tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 as she protested the impending demolition of a house in the southern Gaza town, according to a witness.
The five gunmen appeared to be affiliated with the Fatah movement, according to Samir Nasrallah, the Corries’ host. The gunmen eventually relented after being told who their targets were, he said.
Corrie, of Olympia, Wash., was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she tried to stop it from demolishing Nasrallah’s house. Her parents, Craig and Cindy, have repeatedly visited Nasrallah since their daughter’s death. They left Gaza safely after the attempted kidnapping, Nasrallah said.
Also Wednesday, Palestinians fired at least six rockets from Gaza at Israel, the military said. In consultations at the Israeli Defense Ministry, it was decided to step up attacks against militant leaders in Gaza and maintain a closure on the
West Bank and Gaza at least through the weekend, banning Palestinians from entering Israel.