RAFAH, Gaza StripÂ – Egyptian forces began closing the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday, stemming the flow of Palestinians across a frontier blown open 11 days ago by Hamas Islamists in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade.
“It is closed. Go home,” a Hamas militant told Palestinians at the Rafah crossing as many in the crowd began to leave the area.
Egyptian forces used barbed wire and metal barricades to seal the only remaining gap on the Egyptian side of the frontier. Egyptian security sources said hundreds of Egyptian security men were deployed along the border.
Hamas, which violently took over the Gaza Strip in June, has been under pressure from Egypt to stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have crossed over since members of the group blew open the border on January 23.
Gazans flocked to the Egyptian side of the border town of Rafah to stock up on goods in short supply in the Gaza Strip after Israel tightened border restrictions in a declared bid to pressure Palestinian militants to halt rocket attacks.
“We will try to exert our control completely at the border. There are hundreds of Palestinians still on Egyptian territory, and they will be returned in the coming hours,” said an Egyptian security source.
Rafah crossing, once controlled by the Palestinian Authority and overseen by European monitors, has been largely closed by Israel since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in fighting against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group.
After talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Saturday Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group “will restore control over this border, in cooperation with Egypt, and gradually”.
An Egyptian officer at the crossing told scores of people who gathered there on Sunday that Gazans on the Egyptian side of the frontier and Egyptians visiting the Gaza Strip would be allowed to return home.
“The season is over. We came to buy cigarettes and resell them, but we were surprised when the gates were closed in our faces,” said Mohammed al-Masri, a Gaza resident.
“It is going smoothly and without problems or violence,” said a Hamas member at the scene. “It may take 48 hours for the border to get back to normal.”
Hamas has demanded a central role in controlling the border with Egypt. Talks in Cairo on Saturday between Khaled Meshaal, a Hamas leader who lives in exile, and Egyptian officials ended without a formal agreement on frontier arrangements.