Gazan exodus slows as Egypt tries to seal border

Egyptian security forces erected barbed wire along one gap in the border wall in the divided frontier town as Hamas militants stood nearby, although hundreds of Palestinians managed to cross through other breaches.

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Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have swarmed into Egypt since militants blew holes in the border wall a week ago after a punitive Israeli lockdown of the Hamas-run territory cut vital fuel and aid supplies.

Egypt 'taking control'

In Cairo, a security source told news agency AFP that Egyptian authorities have turned back around 3,000 Palestinians trying to reach Cairo and other cities since the border was breached.

“The Palestinians were stopped and asked to turn back after travelling past El-Arish,” 35 kilometres from Rafah, the furthest point they were allowed to reach to stock up on goods, the source said.

Road blocks have been set up across Sinai, particularly on the roads leading out of the peninsula.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit telephoned US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana to express Egypt's “determination to take gradual control of the border,” the ministry said.

Abul Gheit, who also telephoned EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Egypt would like to “restore the border situation to an acceptable one” and called on Israel to stop the “collective punishment” of the Gaza Strip's civilian population.

Supplies from Cairo blocked

In Rafah, shops were running out of stocks after Egypt started blocking new supplies being trucked in from Cairo on Sunday.

“We are mostly missing vaccinations for the children which ran out on the first day,” said one pharmacist in Rafah. “We have ordered a shipment but authorities have blocked it at the Peace Bridge,” which leads into the Sinai.

Israel said on Sunday that it was in talks with Egypt on how to seal the border with Gaza, which has been increasingly isolated since the Islamist Hamas movement seized control last June.

Israeli blockade

Israel imposed a full blockade of the impoverished territory on January 17 but began allowing some fuel, food and medicines through five days later amid international fears of a humanitarian crisis.

Abul Gheit said Egypt would “take all the appropriate measures” to control border as soon as possible.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and a Hamas delegation were due to hold separate talks with Egyptian officials about the crisis today.

Hamas member of parliament Salah al-Bardawil said the Islamist wanted new arrangements at the Gaza-Egypt border to replace a 2005 agreement Mr Abbas reached with Israel under which the Rafah crossing was overseen by European Union monitors and cameras allowing Israel to see those passing through.

“We want an Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing without Israeli control or an international presence,” Mr Bardawil told AFP

“That is the demand that we will present to Egypt.”

But prime minister Salam Fayyad made clear that the Palestinian leadership would oppose any attempt by Hamas to revise the 2005 arrangements.

“The Palestinian Authority has the legal authority to administer the crossings. This is our role, and we will carry it out,” said Fayyad.

“With the Rafah crossing there is a prior international agreement to operate it with a number parties including the European Union,” he added.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers expressed deep concern about the chaos at the border and unveiled a new plan for getting aid to the Palestinians.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the 27-member bloc needed to encourage Israel “to do all that is necessary to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches the population of Gaza.”

The EU's executive body announced it had set up a new mechanism – dubbed PEGASE — which from February 1 would channel aid to help build a Palestinian state.