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Hamas operatives had been sawing away the foundations of the wall between Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah for a few months to make it easier to blow it up when the time came, a source close to the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Rafah told Haaretz yesterday. A central Hamas operative partially confirmed the report, although he told Haaretz it was PRC operatives who had prepared to breach the wall, while Hamas policemen did not interfere.

In any case, Hamas has for months been discussing the need to take the initiative in ending the siege of Gaza. Apparently, after four days of hermetic closure, following months of siege, the planners believed the political and social conditions were ripe to bring down the iron wall that Israel had put up.

Yesterday around 3 A.M., the people of Rafah were awakened by a series of blasts - between 15 and 20, people said. The hospital in Rafah was put on advance alert to prepare for those who might be injured by Egyptian bullets. People started heading toward the blast sites, but a source who knew about the plan ahead of time told Haaretz Hamas men prevented them from going over to the Egyptian side before sunrise. At 6 A.M., the first people started to cross over to Egypt, and their numbers steadily increased. The market on the Egyptian side of Rafah opened early in honor of the visitors.

Butheyneh, about 40, said she did not hear the explosions. She found out about the breach around 8 A.M. and at 9 headed with her two sisters-in-law and two of her children toward Egyptian Rafah. "We were hoping to buy a few things we needed, there are a lot of things we need, but mainly we felt like getting out, seeing people, feeling like we were out of jail," she said yesterday over the phone.

The Egyptians did not allow Palestinian vehicles to cross to their side of Rafah, but they did allow horse and donkey-carts. Egyptian police, who watched those going back and forth without checking anyone, prevented Egyptian drivers from transporting Gazans outside of Rafah, although some drivers managed to do so by side roads, charging high fees - about 300 Egyptian pounds, according to Rami, of the Shabura refugee camp. But even if they had been allowed to transport people, there would not have been enough cars. Thousands of people began walking toward El Arish. Egyptian Rafah began running out of essential products that cannot be found in Gaza and whose prices are very high: cheese, concrete, iron, oil. diesel, cigarettes, foam mattresses, cleaning materials, flour, glass plates, mats, blankets. "The prices will go up in no time," Butheyneh said. She knew that cheese was cheaper in Egypt, but was asked to pay as much for it as Egyptian cheese smuggled through the tunnels from Rafah.

The lack of concrete has made it difficult to bury the dead; the lack of foam mattresses has meant weddings have been postponed.

Although the Egyptians raised the price of cigarettes in a few hours because of the demand, their price in the Gaza Strip plummeted, from as high as NIS 24 to NIS 10 a pack

Buses and trucks arrived at the breach constantly all day long from all over the Strip. Many families came to satisfy their children's request "to go on a trip to Egypt." Some went to see relatives not seen for some time, children jumped at the chance for a bag of potato chips. The sense of joy at freedom was entwined with great fatigue because of the crowds and the long walk.

Some stayed overnight in Egypt, although most went for a few hours. When they returned, Hamas police checked their belongings, especially people carrying large cartons, looking for drugs and weapons. Butheyneh, who did not buy anything, saw hashish in someone's belongings. He was immediately arrested. Rumor had it that Fatah men had weapons, and they were immediately confiscated.