Palestinians Rush Across Gaza Border into Egypt

Tens of thousands of Palestinians cross the unguarded border between Egypt and Gaza. Israel had limited air, sea and cross-border transit before it withdrew troops from the territory two days ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to establish order in the Gaza Strip after two days of chaos and looting that followed the Israeli military withdrawal. Thousands of Palestinians ransacked former Israeli settlements yesterday and looted several greenhouses. Thousands more streamed across Gaza's temporarily open border with Egypt. NPR's Ivan Watson was at the border town of Rafah yesterday and he filed this report.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Rafah is a bullet-riddled border town on the southern tip of Gaza, the scene of intense fighting in recent years between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers who guarded the nearby frontier between Gaza and Egypt. But when the Israeli troops withdrew early Monday, Palestinians emerged from their war-damaged homes to discover their side of the border was unguarded. Soon there was little left to stop tens of thousands of Palestinians from climbing over or breaking through the daunting 30-foot-high rusting metal wall that Israel constructed here to separate Gaza from Egypt.

(Soundbite of voices; hammering)

WATSON: It was chaotic as the crowd struggled to climb on ropes and ladders over the top. Some even took turns squeezing through one-by-one-foot holes in the metal barrier.

(Soundbite of shouting)

WATSON: Among those on the Palestinian side of the looming wall were Farial Mahmoud(ph) and her sister Atidal(ph). They and their children are all Palestinian refugees who live directly across the border in Egypt, but they crossed into Gaza on Monday to surprise relatives here who they hadn't seen in years.

Ms. FARIAL MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) She didn't believe that. I called them. I told them, `I'm in Gaza.' She said, `You're laughing at me. That's not right.'

WATSON: On the other side of the wall, hundreds of Egyptian police stood beyond an open buffer zone, but they did nothing to stop the flood of Palestinians entering their country. Here, some Palestinians were already on their way back to Gaza, loaded with cheap Egyptian goods like cartons of Cleopatra cigarettes. A man named Omar Shah(ph) carried a case of Marlboro Reds on his shoulder.

Mr. OMAR SHAH: (Through Translator) I just sent--came here to visit Egypt, but while I'm here, I thought of buying some cigarettes.

WATSON: Egyptian shopkeeper Adnan Mahmoud Salah(ph) said he remembers regularly shopping in markets in Gaza until border controls were tightened in 1982. But now the Palestinians were at his shop, buying up shampoo, bags of almonds and sandals which hung from ropes over the door of his stall.

Mr. ADNAN MAHMOUD SALAH: (Through Translator) I sold today and last night goods worth of 50,000 Egyptian pounds. Regular days, I don't sell more than a hundred pounds.

WATSON: Among the crowd were some members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, dressed in green baseball caps but apparently unarmed. For many Palestinians, this was the first time they'd ever set foot outside the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip, which many residents had described as a giant prison. But this frontier free-for-all is likely to alarm Israeli officials, who were concerned about the possible cross-border smuggling of weapons to Palestinian militants. Egypt has said it will shut down the border, possibly starting today. A Palestinian commander also said troops would soon be deployed along the frontier, but so far, the Palestinian Authority has been unable to prevent the looting of factories and valuable greenhouses on its own territory. It may be even more difficult to stem the tide of Palestinians who have free access to the outside world for the very first time.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Gaza.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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