GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza Strip residents flocked to petrol stations on Saturday after clashes in neighboring Egypt hampered smugglers ferrying fuel supplies through tunnels that run under the border into the enclave, witnesses said.
Merchants and tunnellers said the pace of smuggling of fuel and other materials had dropped in recent days and reached its lowest level on Saturday as clashes between Egyptian residents of north Sinai and security forces intensified.
Fearing that makeshift fuel pipes that run through the smuggling tunnels would soon dry up completely, Gaza car owners filled their tanks to the brim and also took extra cans to stock up with additional supplies.
“Move now and fill your car,” read a mobile phone text message that Gazans circulated.
A statement issued by Hamas officials tried to calm fears by saying that there was no shortage of any goods in the coastal strip but it did not deter drivers from filling their cars.
Palestinians get most of their fuel from Egypt through a network of underground tunnels.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent troops and armored cars into Egyptian cities on Friday in an attempt to quell street fighting and mass protests demanding an end to his 30-year rule.
Egyptian troops have a high presence in Rafah and police the border to try to prevent the smuggling of munitions and goods into the Gaza Strip that is partially blockaded by Israel.
Sounds of gunfire and explosions on the Egyptian side of the border could be heard across the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah where Hamas security forces have been placed on high alert to prevent any possible breach of the border fence.
A Hamas interior ministry spokesman said the border was “secure and there were no violations” and the group added later that Egypt told them it would close Rafah border crossing on Sunday, possibly for a number of days.
Only a few dozen tunnels remain along Gaza’s border with Egypt due to repeated Israeli air strikes and a stepped-up security crackdown by Egypt. Three years ago hundreds were used to smuggling munitions for militant factions.
Israel tightened its land, air and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after Gaza militants abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid.
Tunnellers have said their business has become less lucrative because of the increased risk that has raised prices and because Israel has eased its restrictions on the importation of civilian goods and has allowed goods to be exported from the territory.