It took explosives to do what diplomacy couldn't: allow Palestinians to go on a shopping spree. The siege of Gaza, imposed by Israel and the international community after Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory last July, ended abruptly before dawn on Wednesday when militants blew as many as 15 holes in the border wall separating the territory from Egypt. In the hours that followed, over 350,000 Palestinians swarmed across the frontier, nearly one fifth of Gaza's entire population.
Some Palestinians craved medicine and food goats appeared to be a hot item because Israel had cut off most supplies from entering Gaza as punishment for militants' firing rockets into southern Israel. Students and businessmen joined the throng heading for Egypt. There were scores of brides-to-be, stuck on the Egyptian side, who scurried across to be united with their future bridegrooms in Gaza. And some, like teacher Abu Bakr, stepped through a blast hole into Egypt simply "to enjoy the air of freedom."
The previous day, President Housni Mubarak faced the wrath of the Arab world when his riot police used clubs and water hoses to attack Palestinian women pleading for Egypt to open the Rafah crossing in Gaza. And despite pressure from Israel and the United States, Mubarak wasn't about to order his men to use force to restrain Palestinians rendered desperate by Israel's siege. The Egyptian President said he ordered his troops to "let them come to eat and buy food and go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons."
At 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Palestinian militants detonated explosive charges knocking out slabs in the 26-foot concrete border wall, and by dawn, Gazans were racing to the open border on donkey carts and tractors and in cars. Once through the holes, they trampled across barbed wire, vaulted over fences and picked their way gingerly through cactus. Many carried heavy suitcases and said that they were never coming back to captivity in Gaza.
But most Gazans were in a mad scramble to go shopping, and they returned with everything from goats to tires to jerricans full of gasoline. One stout woman in a veil threaded nimbly through barbed wire with a tray of canned fruit balanced on her head. The Palestinians cleaned out every shop on the Egyptian side: By afternoon, there was nothing to buy within a six-mile distance of the border; and even the Sinai town of El-Arish, three hours drive away, had been sucked dry of gasoline. One taxi driver who brought back cartons of cigarettes and gallons of gas to resell for a profit in Gaza said, "This should help feed my family for several months."
Israel expressed fears that Hamas militants would use the breach in the border to bring in weapons. One Palestinian said he witnessed dozens of Hamas men who had been stuck in Egypt for months crossing into Gaza. Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aryeh Mekel told newsmen, "We have real concerns that they can now freely smuggle explosives, missiles and people into Gaza, which makes an already bad situation even worse."
Hamas moved quickly to capitalize on the mass celebration of the border's breach. The movement's parliamentary leader, Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt to join in urgent talks to find a formula for keeping the Gaza-Egypt border permanently open. Haniyeh said Hamas was prepared to set up joint control of the border with the President's forces, bringing an end to a hostilities between the two factions that erupted last July when Hamas militants chased the President's Fatah militia out of Gaza.
Now that Gazans have exploded out of their besieged enclave, it may be up to Israel to seal up the border again, since the Egyptians are showing no signs of doing so. Israel had put the economic squeeze on Gaza's 1.5 million people a policy described as "collective punishment" by many aid organizations hoping it would turn the Palestinians against Hamas. But with the siege broken, even if temporarily, Hamas has earned the gratitude of hungry Palestinians and reinvigorated its popularity in Gaza.