Hamas challenges Egypt's bid to close Gaza border

RAFAH, Gaza Strip Fri Jan 25, 2008 5:11pm EST

1 of 18. A Palestinian woman stands among Egyptian riot police as she tries to cross into Egypt through the destroyed section of the border wall between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, January 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces greatly reduced their presence along the breached Gaza border late on Friday after Palestinian militants defied their attempts to seal the gaps by bulldozing a new opening.

Thousands of Palestinians crossed unhindered from Hamas-run Gaza as the Egyptians pulled back, rushing to stock up on food and fuel and shop for other goods which are in short supply because of Israel's blockade of the strip.

Adel Salman, an Egyptian government employee who lives near the border point said he had seen truckloads of police leaving.

"Palestinian movement is passing through the gate without any opposition from Egyptian security forces," Salman said.

An Egyptian security source said the forces pulled back from crossing points after a security man was shot and wounded.

Tens of thousands of Gaza Palestinians have crossed into Egypt since militants blew up a border wall on Wednesday to get around a blockade that Israel said it had imposed to try to counter cross-border rocket fire.

The fall of the Rafah wall has also punched a new hole in a U.S.-backed campaign to curb the clout of Hamas and strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, nearly eight months after the Islamist group routed Abbas's Fatah forces in Gaza.

The Egyptian government faces a difficult balancing act.

It does not want to be seen as aiding the Israeli blockade, but is under U.S. and Israeli pressure to take control. It also fears the spread of Islamist influence and the effects of becoming home to so many undocumented Palestinians.

On Friday, Egyptian forces began placing barbed wire and chain-link fences to stop more people crossing. But Hamas militants, cheered on by crowds of Gazans, used a bulldozer to flatten sections of the chain and concrete fence.

Tensions flared at one point when Palestinians threw stones at Egyptian police, who responded with batons and water cannon.

The Egyptian state news agency MENA said 22 Egyptian security men were injured while trying to contain the crowd. Egyptian security sources at the border said seven security men were injured, 6 by stones and one shot in the foot.

MUBARAK INVITATION

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in an interview to be published on Saturday, urged Hamas and Abbas's Fatah to end their differences and invited both sides to meet.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, speaking in Damascus, accepted the invitation. "I and all the brothers in the Hamas leadership welcome participating and will seek to make the dialogue a success," he told Reuters.

But a Fatah lawmaker in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas holds sway, said talks would be a waste of time as long as Hamas continued to control Gaza.

"There is a Palestinian consensus that Hamas should give up its control of Gaza and fall into line with President Abbas, without this the talks would be a waste of time," lawmaker Abdallah Abdallah said.

Abbas has sought U.S. and Israeli support to take control of all of the border crossings, a move Hamas hopes to prevent.

By challenging Egyptian efforts to re-close the Gaza border, Hamas hoped to win assurances from Cairo that it would have a say in any future agreement to oversee the border crossings, including the one with Egypt at Rafah, Hamas sources say.

Israeli officials said Abbas planned to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday, seeking support for controlling the crossings and for renewed peace talks despite the setbacks.

Citing the breach in Gaza's southern border, some top Israeli officials have advocated cutting Israel's remaining links with the coastal territory and putting the onus on Egypt.

Hamas sources said the group decided to open a new section in the border fence to increase pressure on Egypt.

Israel, which occupied Gaza in 1967, pulled out its troops and settlers in 2005 but still controls the strip's northern and eastern borders, airspace and coastal waters.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Yusuf in Rafah, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Egypt, and Cynthia Johnston in Cairo; and Avida Landau and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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