RAFAH, Egypt — A tide of Palestinians surged past baton-swinging Egyptian border guards Thursday as political uncertainty clouded the international response to the unregulated flow of Gaza Strip residents into Egypt.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians took advantage of the broken Egyptian border wall to spirit cows, camels, cigarettes and cement into the Gaza Strip while political leaders wrestled with what to do.
Palestinian militants created a temporary escape valve for 1.5 million Gaza residents Wednesday by toppling long sections of the border wall in a well-planned pre-dawn military operation.
The Palestinian influx into Egypt has created a quandary for the international community.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is caught between pressure from Israel and the United States to restore order and criticism from the Islamic world that he hasn't done enough to help Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip.
Israel vowed Thursday to continue its almost-total economic blockade of Gaza, and its deputy defense minister suggested that it might soon be time to sever all ties to the impoverished territory between Israel and Egypt.
From his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appeared ineffectual as the militant Islamic group Hamas won credit in Gaza for breaking the Israeli sanctions.
Along with toppling the border walls, the operation blew a hole in the Bush administration's attempt to marginalize Hamas. Since Hamas won elections in Gaza a year ago and its militants routed Abbas' forces from the Gaza Strip last June, Israel and the United States have tried to cut off Gaza from the outside world.
In parallel, Israel and the U.S. have worked to strengthen Abbas and his secular allies in the West Bank by launching a new round of peace talks meant to establish a Palestinian state.
Hamas leaders in Gaza on Thursday hailed the border opening as a political and military triumph that would help the group end its international isolation.
"Ramallah can't dictate anything now," said Ahmed Yousef, the political adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' leader and toppled Palestinian Authority prime minister. "They can talk to us as brothers."
For the moment, much of the focus is on how Mubarak will respond.
After Hamas militants breached the border Wednesday, Mubarak allowed Palestinians to pour out of Gaza to load up on food, clothing and medicine, which have slowly been disappearing from stores because of the Israeli economic blockade.
Mubarak has come under criticism — especially from powerful Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the genesis of Hamas — for what detractors call his "complicity" in Gaza's humanitarian crisis.
Since Hamas seized control last summer, the Egyptian government has kept its side of the border with Gaza largely sealed, with authorities resorting to deadly force on occasion to stop people from crossing.
Israel, however, has long complained that Egypt doesn't do enough to secure the border and stop smugglers, who use tunnels under the border to sneak arms, cigarettes and people into and out of Gaza.
As Israel's economic stranglehold on Gaza worsened, Arabs throughout the region seethed about Egypt's silence in the crisis. In newspapers, chat rooms, TV talk shows and other media, commentators — not for the first time — accused Mubarak of selling out the Palestinian cause.
On Thursday, a frustrated Egyptian diplomat blamed Israel for putting his government in an untenable situation.
"It's the Israelis who put us into this crisis, this awkward position," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his country's uncertain response. "I'm not saying Hamas is not to be blamed as well, but it's the Israelis who are cutting off supplies and starving the people."
As Palestinians poured south out of Gaza on Thursday, Israel reaffirmed its refusal to allow food and fuel into Gaza regularly unless Hamas stops the rockets and mortars that slam into southern Israel every day.
"The policy now is closed borders which are sometimes open, as opposed to open borders that are sometimes closed," said Aryeh Mekel, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Under the new policy, Israel is allowing Gaza to receive little more than small deliveries of food and fuel to run its power plant. The plant cut back power generation by a third Thursday because it's running out of fuel.
If Israel doesn't let more in, Palestinian power officials warned, the plant might have to shut down Sunday. That could throw large parts of Gaza into darkness, shut down water pumps and cripple sewage-treatment plants.
Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defense minister, suggested that the time might be approaching when Israel severed all its ties with Gaza.
"If Gaza's open from the other side, we stop being responsible for them," Vilnai told Israel's Army Radio. "We want to separate from them. . . . We want to stop supplying them with electricity, water, medical services, so that these come from a different place."
Establishing a new route for supplies from Egypt would be exceptionally difficult, however, and Egypt has little interest in becoming the gateway to Gaza.
In Egypt, trucks piled with cement mix, soda, furniture, olive oil and other goods lined the main shopping street leading into the Gaza Strip.
Throngs of Palestinians pushed and shoved through the streets on a frantic buying — and in some cases selling — spree. One Palestinian farmer used the open border to sell Egyptian buyers a wilting crop of carnations once destined for Europe but trapped in Gaza because of the Israeli border closure.
In a reminder of how close economic ties between Israel and Gaza once were, the cardboard boxes for the carnations carried the stamp: "Flowers from Israel."
(Allam reported from Cairo. Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed from Jerusalem.)