Palestinians Keep Flooding Into Egypt, but Cairo Off Limits

Thousands of Gaza Palestinians crossed into Sinai for the second straight day yesterday, heading toward the Egyptian half of Rafah and El Arish on the peninsula's northern coast.

But the Egyptian security forces have created a kind of buffer zone between Gaza and El Arish, with roadblocks keeping out hundreds of Palestinians trying to reach Cairo.

Egyptian authorities made it clear that they viewed Wednesday's razing of part of the border wall as a way to meet immediate humanitarian needs, not as a permanent solution to other issues such as limits on Gazans' freedom of movement.

Egyptian merchants arrived at Rafah with a particularly large and varied supply of items Palestinians were keen to buy.

Since the breach in the wall, the Egyptian security forces have been busy trying to contain the traffic, mainly by setting up roadblocks preventing Gaza Palestinians and journalists from traveling westward.

They have also been trying to identify those responsible for bringing down the wall, and interviewed some of their contacts in the Palestinians' Popular Resistance Committees, a source affiliated with the local Gaza-based militias told Haaretz.

Hundreds of Palestinian students who are registered in universities abroad tried to persuade the Egyptian authorities to allow them to continue to Cairo so they could travel further afield. Despite a meeting with the governor of El Arish, any travel to the Egyptian capital was denied them.

Heading into the Gaza Strip, some 600 Palestinians who had been stuck on the Egyptian side for nearly eight months crossed through the breach during the past two days.

Students make rare trip home

Palestinians studying in Egypt who had been unable to visit their parents took advantage of the breach to make short visits.

In one case, a medical student visited her family for the first time in five years. She had not made the trip before, fearing that the border crossing would be closed and she would not be able to return to her studies.

Palestinians said the police did not prevent them from traveling to El Arish, some 50 kilometers from Rafah on the Gaza-Sinai border. Many had made their way there at great expense, assisted by locals eager to make a profit.

"Under Israeli occupation the Palestinians became expert in finding ways to bypass roadblocks," one of them joked. He had just returned to the Strip and reported that "the roads were full of trucks and buses carrying people from all parts of the Gaza Strip toward the Egyptian side of Rafah."

But although their presence has filled El Arish with life and activity, with the sidewalks and streets of this coastal city on the Egyptian periphery packed with visitors, travel westward toward the Suez Canal and mainland Egypt was strictly curtailed.

For those who managed to reach the Canal area, tight checks were carried out at the bridge connecting Sinai with the mainland, and those without valid visas or documents were turned back.

This has not prevented Gazans from expressing their appreciation that President Hosni Mubarak allowed them to cross into Egypt, albeit in a limited way.

"Hosni Mubarak ala tul," some wshouted, using a public address system they brought along. The phrase roughly translates as "Hosni Mubarak is tops."

"All the Arabs are traitors, but not Mubarak," was also repeatedly heard. "He is the greatest president in the Arab world."

The swarm of Palestinians on El Arish has left the locals somewhat stunned.

"These people arrived starving. I do not know where they have money from but they emptied all the stores," a local resident told Haaretz by telephone.

"The atmosphere is exciting. These people are like children who have become free for the first time of their lives," said a foreign journalist who managed to enter El Arish.

Many parents were pressured by their children to visit Egyptian Rafah - a sort of "trip abroad" - and buy potato chips, which they cannot find in the Gaza Strip.

Many Gazans complained that the Egyptians had raised the prices of some of the items they were selling, although prices began to return to normal later in the day.

Very popular items are cement, cigarettes, diesel and gasoline, cheese and inexpensive mattresses, but also livestock, because there has been high demand for fresh meat in Gaza.