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Thursday, January 24, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

Three of 10 Gazans entered Egypt; Hamas seized moment to smuggle explosives

GAZA CITY — About 30 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip has left for neighboring Egypt after a border wall was destroyed.

Officials said about 400,000 Palestinians, many of them prepared for a long stay, rushed the eastern border and entered Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian authorities, which used live fire and tear gas against would-be Palestinian infiltrators on Jan. 22, were ordered not to respond.

"I told [security forces] to allow them to buy their basic needs and go back to Gaza as long as they are not carrying arms or anything illegal," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on Wednesday. "They entered to buy food. They will return."

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Israeli sources said Hamas exploited the chaos to smuggle thousands of weapons and explosives from Sinai, Middle East Newsline reported. They said the destruction of the wall was planned by Hamas for several weeks in an attempt to replenish its raw material stockpile for rockets and missiles.

Egypt was informed of Hamas's plans to destroy the border wall, the sources said. They said that hours before the bombings Egypt rushed hundreds of troops to the Gaza border.

The United Nations reported that more than 300,000 Palestinians streamed into Sinai on Wednesday. The 12-kilometer wall along the Sinai-Gaza border was breached in at least 17 places by Hamas forces.

Palestinian sources said Hamas planned the destruction of the border wall since at least October 2007. They said Hamas operatives conducted nightly missions to weaken the supports of the wall and identify spots to insert explosives.

On late Jan. 22, Hamas border guards, informed of an imminent explosion, were ordered to stay away from the wall. Hours after the early-morning explosions, Hamas sent bulldozers to widen the breaches.

"I can predict that the next time there will be 500,000 Gazans who will come to Erez to enter Israel," Ahmed Yusef, the adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Israel Radio on Thursday.

Many Palestinians traveled to El Arish, the capital of Sinai, for food, cooking gas and building supplies. By the afternoon, shops in El Arish and Rafah had run out of supplies, sold at about one-third the price of those in the Gaza Strip. Most of the Palestinians were said to have returned to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday evening.

On Thursday, Palestinians, many of them in cars, continued to stream into Egypt. But Egyptian border guards, on alert for the prospect that tens of thousands of young Palestinians planned to resettle in Cairo, sought to stop the flow and scuffled with the infiltrators. At the same time, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that the Rafah border terminal would remain open.

"The Egyptians are deployed along the border between Gaza and Egypt," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. "It is their responsibility to ensure that the border operates properly, in accordance with the signed agreements. Israel expects the Egyptians to solve the problem."

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