MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
In the Gaza Strip today, they traveled any way they could. Tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed over the border into Egypt. This, after militants destroyed huge stretches of the seven-mile-long barricade in the divided border town of Rafah. Israel built the wall as part of a broader effort to seal off the region before Hamas seized control last June. But the blockade has made many essential goods scarce and has driven up prices. Soon after the barricade came down, elated Palestinians rushed into Egyptian border towns to buy supplies.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from the Gaza-Egypt crossing.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Thousands of jubilant Gazans came by foot, taxi, bus, and donkey cart to cross the destroyed border fence into Egypt to visit relatives or stock up on consumer goods and food and return back to Gaza. Today, boys and men loaded donkey carts with big boxes of cheese, olive oil, jugs of cooking oil, cartons of cigarettes, new tires, and 100-pound bags of Egyptian cement.
Umm Fahdi, a 40-year-old mother of five, was crossing into Egypt with her 11-year-old son to visit close friends near the Egyptian city of El-Arish. Let us live, let us live, she said. We're human and we want to live.
Ms. UMM FAHDI (Mother): (Through translator) We've been choked, choked. Tell the Jews to leave us alone and give us mercy, and let the whole world look at how we are living.
WESTERVELT: In an apparently long and well-planned demolition, locals here say unknown militants, several days ago, began using blow torches to cut away parts of the metal border fence. Last night, militants used explosives, blow torches, and heavy equipment to methodically topple most of the seven-mile-long metal and cement barricade between Egypt and Gaza.
At the border, Umm Mohammed precariously stacked some eight suitcases stuffed with clothes and household goods onto a wobbly donkey cart. The 40-year-old mother of four said she's been trapped in Egypt for nearly seven months - since last June's Palestinian civil war - unable to go home until today.
Ms. UMM MOHAMMED (Mother): (Through translator) I'm so happy after suffering and being so tired for so long. We did not believe the crossing had really opened.
WESTERVELT: For many in Gaza, it amounted to a giant, frenzied shopping trip. Families and businessmen stocked up on items that have grown more and more scarce and expensive since the militant Islamist group Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories two years ago. Things got even worse after Hamas violently ousted the rival Fatah movement in Gaza last June, prompting Israel to further seal its borders.
Naim Hijazi held two new electric heaters under his arms and tried to flag down a donkey cart or taxi to help him transport a new washing machine he'd just purchased.
Mr. NAIM HIJAZI (Gaza Resident): (Through translator) It's gold. I'm very happy. Thanks to God. Because we didn't have enough food, drink. We didn't have electronics, nothing.
HIJAZI: The Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel looks to Egypt to solve the problem and to live up to its signed agreements to control the border. He voiced concern militants could now more easily smuggle weapons and explosives. Anyone can enter now, Mekel said.
Ahmed Yousef, a senior member of Hamas here, said, today is like paradise, and predicted the border would remain open for at least three days. Near the destroyed border crossing, members of Hamas' Executive Force militia tried to control the chaotic traffic. Most Egyptian soldiers just stood aside, smiled, and let the crowd of people pass through.
23-year-old Gaza resident Mohammed Zorro.
Mr. MOHAMMED ZORRO (Gaza Resident): Yeah, they say welcome, but don't do any problem for anyone. Just go and buy anything.
WESTERVELT: John Ging is the Gaza director of the United Nations' refugee agency here, which provides food relief for more than one million of Gaza's 1.5 million residents. Ging says a recent partial shipment from Israel of industrial fuel for Gaza's power plant eases the crisis a little. But he calls today's breach pathetic and a sign of desperation.
Mr. JOHN GING (Director, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East): We've been teetering on the brink here for the last seven months. And before that, we already had a very desperate and miserable existence for the population here in terms of food, medicine, electricity, water, sanitation. It's all teetering on the brink.
WESTERVELT: Palestinians we talked to here say they're not sure if this is just a one-day shopping spree or the end of what they call the siege by Israel. One person said to me, we hope this remains open. We're brothers with the Egyptians. In any event, it's going to be a huge effort to try to restore any semblance of security here or rebuild the wall. Giant stretches of the wall are completely destroyed, and people continue to stream across.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, on the Gaza-Egypt border crossing.
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