One Egyptian soldier was killed and at least 20 Palestinians were injured after violent clashes erupted on both sides of the Gaza-Egypt border during a Hamas-led demonstration against Egypt’s continued closure of its only crossing with the embattled enclave.
In recent weeks, Palestinians have fired on Egyptian border guards as tensions rose after it became known that Egypt plans to build an underground steel wall to stem the rampant tunnel smuggling on its Gaza border. But today marked the first time Hamas militants were involved in a confrontation with Egyptian soldiers.
An aid convoy, led British Parliamentarian George Galloway, was expected to have arrived at the Rafah border crossing by now. The "Viva Palestina" convoy, which left London on Dec. 6, has been delayed in the Egyptian city of Al Arish, some 25 miles from Rafah. There have been reported clashes Tuesday between Egyptian security forces and convoy activists there. An agreement was reportedly reached Wednesday that would allow 158 trucks, but not 40 private cars, into Gaza. Wednesday evening, local time, the trucks began crossing the border into Gaza.
The Hamas Islamist movement violently seized power from its secular Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Egypt and Israel since sealed their borders with Gaza, allowing in a limited amount of humanitarian aid and significantly curtailing passenger travel. The Hamas-organized protest today, say Hamas officials, was in solidarity with the convoy activists, but was primarily aimed at Egypt's efforts to seal the smuggling tunnels.
The clashes at Rafah today started when an some 200 Palestinian youths began throwing stones at Egyptian solders during a demonstration, says Said Abu Shammala, a spokesman for the Hamas-run National Security Forces in Gaza
Egyptian forces reportedly responded by firing tear-gas canisters, stun grenades, and live ammunition into the crowd, according to witnesses interviewed at the scene. Hamas policemen then fired back, other witnesses say, killing the Egyptian soldier.
Hamas denies it is responsible for the death of the Egyptian, claiming instead he was killed by “friendly-fire.” Palestinian media reports say that two of the Palestinians teenagers were critically injured.
Hamas militants forcibly dispersed crowds on the Palestinian side of the nearly nine-mile border, driving motorcycles into the mobs, and driving protesters back at gunpoint. Armed security forces also manned the area from atop a sand embankment built to shield the entrance of Gaza’s tunnels from the border.
“Our government forces have specific orders not to fire towards the Egyptian side,” says Mr. Abu Shammala, speaking at the border. “Of course we will not attack the Egyptians, our brothers and our neighbors. We have the situation under control.”
But Palestinians fear this is only the beginning of heightened tensions surrounding Egypt’s attempt to choke Gaza’s tunnels. Not only is the subterranean smuggling network a main source for Hamas weapons, but is also a lifeline of supplies for the territory under a crippling Israeli blockade.
Palestinians here say halting their underground commerce with a new underground wall would only deepen their poverty, prompting more violent outbreaks and pitting them and their Islamist leaders against the Egyptian government.