RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
To understand this story, you need to know some geography in the Middle East. You need to know that the Gaza Strip, a crowded and isolated Palestinian area, shares a border with Egypt. You need to know that there's a security wall along that border. And finally you need to know it would be more accurate to say there was a security wall. Gunmen bombed it today. Tens of thousands of Palestinians are now streaming across the border into Egypt. They're leaving the Gaza Strip on foot and donkeys to get supplies after being locked in.
NPR's Eric Westervelt is at the scene.
And Eric, what do you see?
ERIC WESTERVELT: Steve, I'm actually standing inside Egypt. The security wall has been completely blown down in huge sections - about three football field lengths of the security wall have been completely destroyed and Palestinians are streaming across using donkey carts, using tractors. I see them coming across carrying cement, cigarettes, cooking oil. It's a chaotic scene but the Gazans are happy and exuberant. They're saying we've been trapped inside Gaza for months. Now they're getting a chance to stock up on some food and fuel items they say they've gone without. Prices have risen steeply inside Gaza. Now they're coming into Egypt and stocking up on things for half, sometimes even less the price.
INSKEEP: I want to understand this. Are you saying this is in effect a desperation shopping expedition?
WESTERVELT: It is. I never thought there could be such exuberance over cheap Egyptian cement, but people are piling it onto their shoulders and carrying it back, so the it's a giant, happy, chaotic shopping spree here in Egypt on the border.
INSKEEP: Now, this was a border, which I presume means you had border guards on both sides. What are Palestinian authorities doing? What are Egyptian authorities doing?
WESTERVELT: There are no Palestinian security guards on the Palestinian side. And I'm standing near some Egyptian soldiers, and they are doing absolutely nothing. We tried to speak with the Egyptian soldiers and they just would not speak with us at all. But essentially they don't want to have any comment on that fact that they're just completely looking the other way, and in some cases facilitating these thousands of people streaming across to shop. And people coming back and forth. I talked to families who said I haven't seen my family inside Gaza in six, seven months. We're going to see our families for the day and hopefully, they say, make it back across.
INSKEEP: We should mention the context for this. The other borders of Gaza are bounded by Israel, and Israel imposed a complete closure on Gaza, reports of fuel and food shortages as a result. The Israelis now saying that they're worried about what's going on and they expect Egypt to take care of it. It doesn't sound like Egypt is terribly interested in doing what Israel wants.
WESTERVELT: No, it doesn't. And this could exacerbate already strained relations between Egypt and Israel. Israel's complained bitterly, Steve, in recent weeks that Egypt is not doing enough to secure this border, saying that in some cases Egyptian authorities are aiding and abetting, they charge, in smuggling arms and explosives across the border. And certainly today's scene will only exacerbate those tensions between Israel and Egypt.
INSKEEP: What does this mean for the Palestinian group that is running Gaza, Hamas?
WESTERVELT: Well, it's hard to say. It could strengthen them. Certainly people are fed up with Fatah, the ruling group that was ousted last June violently by Hamas. But right now people aren't really talking about Fatah or Hamas. They're just sort of swept up in this moment.
INSKEEP: Had Israel been hoping that pressure on the Palestinians in Gaza would put pressure in turn on Hamas?
WESTERVELT: Yeah. That's been the hope. We talked to some Israeli officials. They say we hope that the people inside Gaza eventually sort of turn on Hamas. And I've seen no sign of that up and down the Gaza Strip, been here the last two days. Certainly today's event if anything may end up strengthening Hamas.
INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt has walked across the border from the Gaza Strip into Egypt, a path that many Palestinians are taking today.
Eric, thanks very much.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And we have word now from Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, that he deliberately let the Palestinians cross. He told reporters in Cairo - and this is a quote - let them come in to eat and buy food, then they go back, as long as they're not carrying weapons.
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