RAFAH, Egypt -- Egyptian police stepped up their presence along the breached border of the Gaza Strip yesterday, amid indications that the government would soon close it. But Palestinians by the tens of thousands continued to flow across in a mass, joyous shopping binge given urgency by months of isolation.
The break in the border, which occurred Wednesday when masked gunmen blew up a stretch of wall that had divided this frontier city, posed a dilemma for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as well as for Israel. Both sides were worried about weapons flowing into and out of Gaza, and about the prospects for even greater instability in the region.
The Egyptian state-owned satellite channel Nile News quoted unidentified security sources as saying that as many as one-third of Gaza's population of 1.5 million has crossed into Egypt since the border wall was breached.
Despite criticism from Israeli and U.S. officials, Egypt has yet to reseal the border, but the presence of baton-wielding police officers was greater than the previous day and security forces moved to ensure that Palestinians did not wander farther south than El Arish, about 25 miles below Rafah. Egyptian officials intimated the border would not remain open much longer, and analysts suggested Egypt might move to secure it within several days.
The Bush administration was moving to end the miles-long processions of trucks, taxis and donkey carts streaming beyond the toppled Rafah wall. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters that Washington was in contact with Cairo and was prepared to assist Egypt in bringing stability to the Sinai. "Our view is that order should be restored to the border," Burns told reporters in Jerusalem, adding that services should be re-established quickly.
In Washington, a State Department official said the administration was urging Cairo to act and had spoken to various Egyptian officials, including Mubarak. "There are already indications that the Egyptians are moving to control" the crossing, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mubarak, speaking in Cairo, said Egypt would keep "supporting the Palestinians and we won't let them starve in Gaza."
The border region had the aura of a ragged frontier town of opportunists, money-changers, crooks and desperate families trying to haul back as much as they could carry on their arms and backs. Egyptian merchants were taking payment in dollars or Israeli shekels, as well as Egyptian pounds. Currency dealers on the Egyptian side of Rafah sold pounds as high as 4.7 pounds to the dollar, about 20 percent above the going rate.
Palestinians who hustled across the border with plastic containers in search of fuel said filling stations there were running out of gasoline but diesel was still available.
Among the goods being purchased were cows, camels, sheep, goats and horses. Palestinian merchants, seizing the opportunity, stocked up on wholesale quantities of cement and clothing. One Rafah trader hired a team of laborers to hand carry 625 40-kilogram bags of cement - a metric ton - into Gaza. Israel had stopped the importing of cement into Gaza, alleging that Hamas would use it for military purposes.
The Israeli deputy defense minister heightened tensions by reiterating a commonly expressed sentiment that Israel would relinquish all responsibility for Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak distanced himself from the remarks, according to the Associated Press. The Egyptian government quickly rejected an idea that would give Hamas militants a freer hand across the Sinai.
U.S. officials had spoken with Israelis about the crisis in Gaza before the border breach, and the Israelis acknowledged that they have responsibilities for problems there. Hossam Zaki, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "The current situation is only an exception and for temporary reasons. The border will eventually go back to normal."
Citing the possibility of extremist attacks on its citizens, Israel raised its alert level along the Egyptian border.
Rushdi abu Alouf and Jeffrey Fleishman write for the Los Angeles Times.