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Gaza busts out of its blockade

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

(Page 2 of 2)

"We want to breathe some new fresh air, the air of freedom," said one woman as she headed toward Egypt with five children in tow. "I don't have much money to buy anything, but I will buy some detergent. My main reason is to just get out to see the other side."

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The Hamas policemen at the border made a show of doing their job.

"We don't allow everything," explained a policeman after making one man open his duffle bag. Inside: cartons and cartons of cigarettes, an expensive habit in Gaza. The policeman let the man go. "We don't allow drugs, weapons, and alcohol," he said. "Everything else is fine."

Israel doesn't buy the line that only basic goods are coming through. It has insisted that the rockets shot at its territory are being made with imports from Egypt. Israel's foreign ministry issued a terse statement placing responsibility for Wednesday's events on Egypt.

"The Egyptians are deployed along the border between Gaza and Egypt," the statement reads. "It is their responsibility to ensure that the border operates properly, in accordance with the signed agreements. Israel expects the Egyptians to solve the problem."

Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, says Israel's options are limited. "There is nothing we can do.... We are not going to reoccupy the Philadelphia corridor," he says, referring to a narrow security strip between Egypt and Gaza that Israel constructed.

When the border was breached Wednesday, the options for Egyptian troops would have involved opening fire, something that would have been politically devastating for Mubarak. Also, his government has grown tired of Israeli complaints that it was failing to secure the border, and was particularly angry at a US congressional resolution in December to withhold $100 million if Egypt failed to stop border smuggling.

"Israel has succeeded in inciting the US Congress… by putting some sticks in the wheels of this relationship," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said last week. Mubarak accused Israel of fabricating evidence about the extent of the smuggling.

On Monday, an attempted breach was turned back by Egyptian forces, with guards firing into the air and dozens of Palestinians injured. Pictures of that violence made it into Egyptian papers, and public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of opening the border. "Why should Egypt help Israel make Palestinians suffer,'' says Mohammed Ismail, who runs a fruit and vegetable shop in Cairo. "They just want to live."