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Palestinians seal Egypt border

Weeklong free-for-all along the frontier angered Israelis

A Palestinian boy is carried by his mother past Palestinian and Fatah flags during a rally in southern Gaza Sunday celebrating Israel's pullout.
A Palestinian boy is carried by his mother past Palestinian and Fatah flags during a rally in southern Gaza Sunday celebrating Israel's pullout.
Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hundreds of Palestinian troops sealed off Gaza's border with Egypt on Sunday, ending a weeklong free-for-all along the frontier that angered Israeli officials and undermined Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to bring Gaza under control.

Palestinian officials called on Israel to allow them to open the official border crossing at Rafah — which Israel closed before it pulled out of Gaza last week — and sent teams of technicians to install X-ray machines and lay electrical lines in the closed terminal.

"Preparations are under way in the crossing and God willing, when we reach an agreement, the process will move smoothly," Abbas said.

Meanwhile, thousands of Hamas supporters flooded downtown Gaza City for a military-style victory parade. Thousands of masked gunmen, some carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, others with assault rifles, led the march down a main Gaza boulevard. About a dozen gunmen rappelled down the side of a 10-story building, unrolling huge green Hamas flags along the way.

Militants drove cars mounted with rocket launchers, while many of the gunmen fired in the air. Some people wore green Hamas hats emblazoned with the slogan: "Gaza . . . another step to victory."

The Islamic group claims it drove Israel out with scores of attacks over the past five years. Abbas said the withdrawal was a victory for his policy of pursuing negotiations with Israel.

Each side is hoping to turn the pullout to its political advantage ahead of January parliamentary elections.

The border remained one of the key issues left unresolved when Israel completed its Gaza withdrawal. The Palestinians wanted to open the Rafah crossing, possibly with the presence of European monitors, to allow people and cargo to move freely into Egypt.

Israel, concerned that militants and advanced weaponry would flow into Gaza, said it wanted traffic redirected through Israeli-controlled crossings. Israeli officials said they would consider allowing the Palestinians to open Rafah — the Gazans' main outlet to the outside world — in six months if they rein in militants and establish order.

In the heady hours after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last week, thousands of Palestinians bypassed the terminal and stormed the border wall, visiting long lost relatives, buying cases of cheap cigarettes or just enjoying a brief vacation along Egypt's Mediterranean coast. Some smuggled weapons into Gaza, Palestinian officials said.

Egyptian and Palestinian border guards repeatedly failed in their efforts to end the chaos and close the border.

On Sunday, all the gaps in the 10-mile border wall were finally sealed, and 2,000 security personnel fanned out across the border, effectively closing it, said Adnan Barbach, a spokesman for the Palestinian National Security Forces.

The Palestinians were working with Egypt to make sure that the people who had previously scrambled over the border could return home, he said.

"The chaos that existed here is over," Abbas said after touring the now-quiet border.

Palestinian police were seen patrolling the border road Sunday. With breaches in the border wall sealed, angry Palestinians were forced to turn back, threatening to return with Hamas militants and homemade rockets.

On the Egyptian side of the border, hundreds of troops with automatic rifles and armored vehicles took up positions as well. Under an agreement with Israel, Egypt is deploying 750 border guards to prevent illegal crossing of goods and people across the border. Egyptian officials said the deployment was completed at midday.

Dozens of the guards carrying AK-47 assault rifles took up posts close to the main crossing.

An Israeli official with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in New York said the chaos might delay reopening of the crossing. Israel said it would remain closed for six months, but there has been a "deterioration," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make an official statement.

Sharon said Sunday that he has asked European leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to press for the disarming of Hamas militants and the abolition of their covenant, which calls for Israel's destruction.

Sharon told a conference of American Jewish leaders in New York that Israel won't cooperate in Palestinian elections scheduled for January unless those two conditions are met.