Thousands of Palestinians cross into Egypt as border breached

>RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – On foot, in cars and in donkey carts, tens of thousands of Gazans flooded into Egypt on Wednesday through a border fence blown up by militants – puncturing a gaping hole in Israel’s airtight closure of the Gaza Strip and giving a boost to Hamas.

In a shopping spree that was both festive and frenzied, Gazans cleared out stores in an Egyptian border town, buying up everything from TV sets to soft drinks to cigarettes.

As waves of people swarmed through the destroyed barrier – some estimated the crowd in the hundreds of thousands – Egyptian security forces lined up on one side of the border and Hamas forces lined up on the other side. None of them interfered in any way, and it appeared Hamas militants actively participated in the border breach.

That breach, though likely temporary, seemed certain to strengthen Hamas in its showdown with Israel, the West and its Fatah rivals – relieving some of the pain of an international blockade of the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ violent takeover of the coastal territory in June.

It also raised Israeli fears of an influx of weapons and militants to Gaza and threatened to undermine crucial Egyptian participation in a Mideast peace push by President Bush.

Official reaction to the day’s events ranged from dismay to embarrassment to outright anger.

The United States expressed concern about the border breach. Israel demanded that Egypt take control of its border. Hamas called on its rivals to help come up with new arrangements for Gaza’s crossings.

Egypt’s leader said he had no choice but to let in the beleaguered Palestinians. But Arab and U.S. officials in Washington said the Egyptian government assured the United States the border would be closed quickly.

For ordinary Gazans, it was a day of joy and plenty.

Osama Hassan, 25, said the border opening will enable him to marry his 17-year-old fiancee next week, because they were able to get items they need to set up a household. He bought a special mattress for his injured back and she assembled kitchen supplies.

Hassan said he belongs to Fatah, not Hamas, but still wants to “kiss the forehead” of Gaza’s Hamas prime minister.