Worries At Gaza-Egypt Border

Egyptian girl, Asmaa Ali, 8, watches a crowd of Palestinians in Rafah, Egypt, Tuesday, Sept.13, 2005 a day after Israel's withdrawal from the volatile Palestinian coastal area in the Gaza Strip after a 38-year occupation.
AP
Egyptian troops allowed elated Palestinians to flood across the border from Gaza for a second day Tuesday, deepening concerns over when Egypt would impose control over a crossing that Israel fears will be used to bring weapons to Palestinian militants. But the open border is not expected to last long, as greenhouses in Gaza are looted and order seems distant.

Gazans, long barred by Israeli border guards from entering Egypt, went on a shopping spree in Egyptian towns, hauling home suitcases and boxes full of cheap cigarettes, food, fish and other goods.

Others searched out relatives they have not seen for years in Rafah, which is divided in two by the border. Some Gazans went as far as el-Arish, 24 miles west of Rafah, and were seen dining at seaside restaurants in the Mediterranean town.

Israeli forces withdrew from the border early Monday as they ended their 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip. Under a deal with Israel, Egypt has deployed hundreds of troops to guard the border and prevent smuggling into Gaza.

But Egypt's 750 troops on the Gaza border may not be able to prevent the flow of weapons across the border, CBS News correspondent Robert Berger reports. That's because as soon as Israel pulled out, border security collapsed. Thousands of Palestinians crossed the border and Egyptian guards appeared helpless.

But Egypt has vowed to restore order. A Palestinian security commander says Gaza-Egypt border to be closed by Wednesday evening.

Although Egyptian troops tried to control the crossings in some places Tuesday, Gazans largely continued to move back and forth freely in Rafah.

Meanwhile, Palestinians looted dozens of greenhouses, walking off with irrigation hoses, water pumps and plastic sheeting in a blow to fledgling efforts to reconstruct the Gaza Strip.

American Jewish donors had bought more than 3,000 greenhouses from Israeli settlers in Gaza for $14 million last month and transferred them to the Palestinian Authority. Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, who brokered the deal, put up $500,000 of his own cash.

Palestinian police stood by helplessly Tuesday as looters carted off materials from greenhouses in several settlements, and commanders complained they did not have enough manpower to protect the prized assets. In some instances, there was no security and in others, police even joined the looters, witnesses said.

"We need at least another 70 soldiers. This is just a joke," said Taysir Haddad, one of 22 security guards assigned to Neve Dekalim, formerly the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza. "We've tried to stop as many people as we can, but they're like locusts."

The failure of the security forces to prevent scavenging and looting in the settlements after Israel's troop pullout Monday raised new concerns about Gaza's future.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told his people in a televised speech Tuesday that he would take immediate steps to impose order. "We have one law for everyone and no one is above the law. We are not going to tolerate chaos after today," he said.

The Palestinian leader is under intense pressure from his people and the international community to stop the growing lawlessness in Gaza, where rival militant groups are jockeying for power. As Abbas spoke, hundreds of masked Hamas gunmen wielding rifles and grenade launchers paraded through the streets of a nearby refugee camp.

On Monday, masked Hamas fighters were seen on the Palestinian side of the border, with some crossing over to the Egyptian side. But none was visible Tuesday, and some Palestinian security forces were seen on the Gaza side.

Palestinian officials said Egypt had informed them it would allow crossings until Thursday, after which control would be restored. The Egyptians also want to allow Palestinians on the Egyptian side of Rafah to move permanently to the Gaza side to rejoin families, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the Egyptian communications were confidential.