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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 January 2008, 12:58 GMT
Gaza border crisis puts Egypt on the spot
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Rafah

Egyptian riot police clash with Palestinians near the Egypt-Gaza border (25 January 2007)

Alaa smiled and pulled me by the arm. Firstly he wanted to check my credentials. "You are a foreign correspondent?" 

I nodded and we got the camera ready to record an interview.  He shook his head - not an interview, he just wanted to just tell me something.

In faltering English he declared: "This is the happiest day of my life!"

Hamas militants had just breached the border wall with Egypt and once again thousands of people were again pouring across no-man's land and in effect breaching the economic blockade of Gaza, imposed Israel says to stop militants from firing rockets into its territory.

Audacious act

The day had begun with Cairo declaring that the crossing would be sealed shortly after midday.

Thousands of extra security personnel were brought in to support the poorly-equipped Egyptian border guards. Extra barbed wire was erected and the  troops moved into place, allowing people to leave, but no-one to enter.

12km (7.4 miles) long
Egyptian side patrolled by 750 soldiers under 2005 agreement with Israel
Border crossing terminal south of town of Rafah
PA control of terminal under EU supervision collapsed after Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007
Border closed almost continuously since

On the Palestinian side, large crowds gathered and people began to jostle with the Egyptian forces. Rocks were thrown and the police used water cannons and electric batons. 

Gunmen from Hamas responded with automatic weapons - and a large yellow bulldozer was brought in to once again try to breach the Egyptian side of the border.

It was an audacious act of defiance.

The bulldozer ploughed into the boundary wall again and again, driven by a masked man, flanked by two others and protected by heavily armed gunmen.

With sheer brute force and the threat of force the wall fell and the crowds surged through into Egypt

It was a humiliating defeat for the Egyptian forces who were outmanoeuvred and outgunned. Its troops had no choice but to stand to one side and then beat an ignominious retreat. 

Sympathy and pressure

Cairo now has two choices.

Bulldozer at Gaza-Egypt border
17 January: Israel seals border following rise in rocket attacks
20 January: Gaza's only power plant shuts down
22 January: Israel eases restrictions
22 January: Egyptian border guards disperse Palestinian protest against closure
23 January: Border wall breached

The first is to return with more troops and try again to close the border. That means not only significantly increasing its presence but also changing tactics. Egypt would have to match the force used by the Palestinians this time, meeting fire with fire.

It would be a high-risk strategy, running the risk of an armed clash with Hamas and even another withdrawal - either way it would be a public relations disaster for Cairo.

The other option is to sit down with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that runs Gaza. This is something Egypt has previously ruled out, but late on Friday the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reported to have offered to broker talks between Hamas and Fatah, the party of the Palestinian president.

As long as the Gaza side of this border remains wide open, Hamas have in effect made themselves an indispensable part of this problem and its solution.

Egypt has sympathy for the Palestinians but it needs to regain control of its own territory and is under pressure to do so from Israel and Washington who fear an open border allows weapons to be easily taken into Gaza.

Until that happens, the Palestinians of Gaza will continue to move freely across the border, to shop and meet old friends and family. Some are even using the opportunity to leave Gaza altogether.

One man told me, "We are in need of help - either with or without the approval of the International community. "

Gaza map

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