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Gaza busts out of its blockade

A new hole opens in the Arab-Israeli peace strategy of isolating Hamas.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Ilene PrusherStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2008

Thousands of Gazans crossed into Egypt Wednesday to buy food, fuel, and other supplies. Some left for good.

Hatem Moussa/AP

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Jerusalem and Cairo

In a coordinated effort using explosives and bulldozers, militants in the Gaza Strip pulled down much of a seven-mile border fence with Egypt Wednesday, allowing tens of thousands of Gazans to cross into Egypt to buy everything from fuel to baby formula.

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The breach, which Egyptian security forces did nothing to contain on President Hosni Mubarak's orders, is the biggest challenge yet to Israel's seven-month-old economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and a major challenge to Israeli, US, and Egyptian efforts to weaken Hamas, which seized control of Gaza last June. A UN official estimated that more than 200,000 people crossed the border Wednesday.

The secular Egyptian government would like as much as Israel to see Hamas isolated and weakened – the Islamist movement is an ally of Egypt's most powerful opposition group, the Moslem Brotherhood. But Mr. Mubarak apparently calculated that he was paying an ever steeper price for backing an international policy that, in the eyes of most Arabs and Egyptians, amounts to collective punishment of Gaza's 1.5 million citizens.

Arab satellite-television channels have been flooded with stories examining the fate of Gazans who have died because of lack of access to drugs and medical care, and angry rhetoric that Israel is seeking to starve Gaza's residents. Those TV stations today showed jubilant Palestinians bearing food and fuel from Egypt back across the border.

While starvation has not been a problem there – most of the strip's residents receive food aid from the UN – it's proved a powerful idea in the propaganda war over Gaza's fate. Mubarak said Wednesday he ordered the border guards not to intervene because "the Palestinians in Gaza are starving due to the Israeli siege... I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return later as long as they were not carrying weapons."

The wall separating Gaza and Egypt was blown open at four in the morning, also blowing a hole in Israel's strategy of fighting Hamas with economic isolation. By sunrise, Palestinians from all over Gaza began fleeing toward Egypt.

They entered on foot with empty hands, and in some cases, empty suitcases. They emerged with arms and bags full, carrying a variety of goods whose prices have become astronomical in recent weeks: Milk, cookies, cooking oil, detergent.

Men drove donkeys and horses with their backs loaded with bags of cement, which has risen to about $80 a bag recently, from about $5 before. Several hundred Egyptian police gave Palestinian pedestrians a wide berth and let them come and go unperturbed, some lugging containers of diesel or leading newly purchased cows and goats.

Gazan frustration grew this week, as Israel severely limited fuel supplies. Israel was supposed to begin supplying Gaza with fuel again Tuesday, but stopped short of what was needed, says Kanaan Obeid, the vice president of Gaza's Energy and Human Resources Authority. Mr. Obeid says there is now enough fuel for another two days.

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