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Egypt Tightens Control Along Gaza Border


Egyptian authorities are slowly trying to reestablish control over the border with the Gaza Strip. Border guards closed one section Monday and tightened the security cordon around the border town of Rafah. Many Egyptian residents of the area are growing tired of the chaos that has descended upon their towns and want something done quickly. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from El-Arish, the largest town in the region and about 35 kilometers from the border.

Egyptian security forces have been gradually reasserting their control over parts of the border with the Gaza Strip. Riot police deployed in large numbers along parts of the border in the town of Rafah, and security forces blocked one broken section of the border with barbed wire and chain-link fencing.

They continued to allow people to freely cross the border on foot, but they have restricted vehicle traffic.

Hamas-affiliated militants on the Gaza side of the border have been keeping Palestinian cars from entering Egypt, but allowing trucks to pass.

There is no confirmation that Hamas is working in concert with the Egyptian authorities, but their actions seem to indicate some coordination in their approach to the border traffic flow. But in Cairo, Egyptian officials and Arab League foreign ministers reaffirmed their opposition to working directly with Hamas.

Egyptian officials have made it clear that they do not intend to leave the border wide-open for much longer, but they have struggled to find ways of effectively closing it down.

Clashes broke out on Friday when they tried to close it by force, so in recent days they have flung up scores of checkpoints around the border town of Rafah, trying to prevent Gazans from moving further into Egypt.

The moves to secure the border come as patience is growing thin among residents of nearby Egyptian towns. In El-Arish, about 35 kilometers from Rafah, many businesses have been forced to close and everything seems to be in short supply.

Asmat Said Mohammed carried an empty canvas shopping bag that she opened and brandished angrily to show that it was empty.

She said for six days, she has not been able to buy anything to eat or drink, and food has become very expensive. "I cannot buy vegetables," she said. "I used to have rice, but now it is gone."

Everywhere in the area, Palestinians and Egyptians alike complain about the soaring prices and shortages, especially of food. The rampant inflation has been driven partly by the enormous demand for staple products from Gaza, and partly by the Egyptian government's decision to restrict goods coming into the border region in an effort to encourage the Palestinians to go back home. Some Palestinians also accuse Egyptians of exploiting the crisis for profit.

But many frustrated local residents say only a few are benefiting from the trading bonanza, while the rest are themselves being squeezed by the government's attempts to regain control of the situation.

Abdel-Aal Ibrahim Ahmed says the police told him to close his printing shop four days ago, as they did to most businesses in El-Arish, and he has done no work since then.

He emphasized that the Palestinians are welcome, but he said "there must be organization. They should take the stuff they need," he said, "but this chaos is unacceptable."

He said with the fuel shortage, transportation has become so expensive that he can no longer afford to take taxis from home to work. He has been walking eight kilometers to and from his shop every day, hoping the police will let him open it.

At the same time, most of the residents of El-Arish also feel deep sympathy for the people from Gaza, which has been under virtual lockdown since Hamas took over in June.

It is clear that emotions are running high. Every time reporters started talking to someone about the situation, the same thing would happen.

Someone else would overhear what was being said and start arguing, and then a crowd would gather, with everyone trying to out-shout each other.

Nawal Husssein, a 30-year old administrative assistant, said she was sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight and feels they have been badly treated by her fellow Egyptians.

"They honored us, and they were exploited. Shopkeepers gave them much higher prices," she said.

As she spoke, Rami Ali Hassan interjected his own view over her shoulder.

He said before the border broke open, the Palestinians had nothing. "But now," he said, "we do not have anything. Their situation has been transferred to us. Now we go hungry, as they did."

He said his clothing shop has more than $50,000 worth of goods that are stuck at the main bridge over the Suez Canal, where border guards are refusing to let trucks pass to bring shipments to El-Arish and Rafah.

Many shops in the two towns have closed not because of police orders, but because they simply have nothing left to sell.

Despite authorities' efforts to reseal parts of the border, many sections remain broken, and some residents think it will take some time before security forces are able to regain complete control.

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