There was a chaotic scene Saturday at the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Egyptian security forces practically abandoned the border after clashes erupted with Palestinians on Friday when they tried to close it down. They tried instead to keep the Palestinians from leaving the border town of Rafah. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans continued to flood across into Egypt to buy food and vital supplies during an Israeli blockade that has lasted more than a week. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Rafah.
Egyptian security forces set up scores of checkpoints on every road leading out of Rafah, trying to keep Palestinians from leaving the border area. It did not really work. In some places, hundreds people just walked out into the desert and bypassed the roadblocks, meeting up with drivers on the other side to carry them the rest of the way.
Police with riot gear and batons tried to stop them, but were vastly outnumbered.
The checkpoints and the sheer number of cars and trucks - many of them bearing Palestinian plates - created the mother of all traffic jams.
After nightfall, it took an hour for cars to move less than 100 meters. A VOA reporter spent three-and-a-half hours traveling 35 kilometers from Rafah to the nearest town of El-Arish, passing through at least 10 roadblocks along the way.
At the border itself, hardly any Egyptian security forces could be seen at all, aside from a handful of border guards who did little to try to control the crowds.
At the main gate, about 20 Hamas militants armed with AK-47s and carrying two-way radios were directing traffic, but did not appear to be searching the cars that passed through.
Since Egyptian security forces failed to close the border by force on Friday, their latest strategy seemed to be trying to encourage Palestinians to return home on their own by cordoning off the border area and shutting down the booming trade that has flourished since the border wall was torn down on Wednesday.
On the Gaza side of the border, the long-divided town of Rafah was virtually abandoned. But the main roads on the Egyptian side of Rafah were like open-air markets, jammed with people who had crossed over from Gaza to buy food and supplies.
Scores of men stood by the side of the road waving handfuls of cash, calling out offers to exchange Egyptian pounds for Israeli shekels, U.S. dollars or other currencies.
People bargained for cheese, car tires, generators and satellite dishes. The most popular items included cartons of cigarettes, motorcycles and livestock. Goats, sheep, camels and cows rode unsteadily in the backs of trucks. Young men sold bags of Arabic bread from the back of a pickup truck. Cars stacked up outside gas stations trying to buy fuel, which is now in seriously short supply.
A man from Khan Younis named Ahmed Mohammed el-Farrah said he had been crossing back and forth to buy supplies for several days, but the food has run out now and the prices have gone too high.
He said, You need a suitcase of dollars to live here.
Egyptian police told shopkeepers in El-Arish and Rafah early in the morning to close their shops and not to sell anything to Palestinians. Hotels were told not to rent them rooms. Shops in El-Arish were mostly shuttered, but a brisk trade continued on the streets and sidewalks all along the route to the border.
Some store owners simply instructed customers to go around to the back door where the police would not see them. Truckloads of the goods could be seen on the road leading to El-Arish from Cairo, but police appeared to be stopping most of them on the way. One shop worker in Rafah shouted to potential customers that his prices were fair, and insisted he was not exploiting the situation because, in his words, we love the Palestinian people.
Opinions in the crowd varied as to how long the border will remain open. Some expected that Egyptian security forces would move in soon to shut everything down, but others said that would be impossible.
Khan Younis resident Najia Aboul-Muamar said it is going to take a long time. She asked, "How can they control these crowds?" She said it would probably take Hamas and Fatah working together to solve the situation.
In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit issued a terse warning that Egypt's hospitality toward its Palestinian neighbors would not extend to endangering the lives of Egyptian security forces. He said nearly 40 police and border guards had been wounded in clashes with Palestinians at the border since the barricade came down.
Egypt has invited Fatah and Hamas for talks in Cairo. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has said he is open to the dialogue, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says his Fatah movement will only talk if Hamas gives up control of Gaza, which is seized violently in June.
The border wall between Egypt and the Gaza Strip was largely toppled on Wednesday after Israel tried to impose a blockade on Gaza in an effort to stop rocket attacks on Israeli towns.