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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 22:05 GMT
Egypt reluctant to check Gaza's surge
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Gaza border

Palestinians on the fence at Gaza's Rafah crossing with Egypt, 23 Jan 2008
Palestinians flooded over the border as the wall tumbled down
It has been a memorable day for the Palestinians of Gaza - a day when they decided to try to end the Israeli blockade for themselves.

Quite who helped them is not altogether clear although few think it could have been done without the support of Hamas - the militant Islamic group that has been running Gaza since autumn last year.

With explosives and some pretty advanced cutting equipment to hand, the border wall literally came tumbling down.

The sound and the news spread through Gaza and as dawn broke thousands of people left their homes and surged across no man's land and on into Egypt with a massive show of people power.

"People are very happy. We have been living like birds in a cage. Now we have been released, we are so happy," said Mohammed, a Palestinian at the border.


Most came to shop, desperate to stock up on goods that have become increasingly scarce as the blockade has gone on.

There were old men herding goats across the border and youngsters carrying boxes of crisps and cheese.

Donkeys pulling wooden carts laden with cement weaved along the muddy road to the border.

There were shiny Chinese motorcycles and dusty cartons of cigarettes.

Women clad in black carried rolled-up rugs on their backs and fridge-freezers were hauled slowly through the crowds.

Above all people were after fuel, the shortage of which seemed to precipitate this crisis.

Families divided

Petrol stations were besieged by Gazans wielding plastic canisters.

Some enterprising Bedouin brought large tankers to the border site to allow people to fill up (and pay up) more easily.

Others had more pressing needs.

Gaza residents at breached wall into Egypt
17 Jan: Israel seals border following rise in rocket attacks
20 Jan: Gaza's only power plant to shuts down
22 Jan: Israel eases restrictions
22 Jan: Egyptian border guards disperse Palestinians
23 Jan: Border wall breached

I watched a man in a wheelchair being carried above the heads of the crowds and into a waiting ambulance.

Families, divided by the closed border, were reunited and took the chance to move all their possessions from one side of the border to the other.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered his support to the Palestinians saying he had authorised the crossing.

"I told them, let them come in to eat and buy food, then go back as long as they're not carrying any weapons," he said.

It was a fanciful statement at best.

Police powerless

The Egyptian border police were powerless to stop the crowd.

Only 24 hours earlier, they had been beating and spraying Palestinian protesters with water cannon.

Israel has called on Egypt to take control of the border and says it is worried that weapons will be smuggled into Gaza.

But it remains unclear what practically could be done.

Egyptian security forces are significantly outnumbered here and any move against the Palestinians would be hugely unpopular both at home and elsewhere in the Arab world.

There is also the risk that it could spark a clash with Hamas gunmen, who have a significant presence on the border.

The damage to the boundary wall is extensive.

In some places there are hundreds of metres of corrugated metal that have been felled and thousands of people continued to move in both directions late into the night.

For now no-one seems in control here and there is little will politically or practically to mend this particular problem.

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