RAFAH, Egypt — Chaos ruled for a fourth straight day at a dismantled Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing where security forces on Saturday tried and failed once more to stop the influx of families entering Egypt to stock up on household goods that are hard to come by in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Reluctant to use force against fellow Muslims and doubtful about a speedy political solution to the crisis, the Egyptian government tested a new tactic for shooing home the Palestinians. Security forces ordered shopkeepers and hotel clerks to stop serving customers from Gaza, according to several business owners in the border towns of Rafah and Arish. A spokesman for the provincial government confirmed the orders.
Early Saturday, many Egyptian-owned stores were shuttered, with groups of Palestinians gathering outside and pleading with shopkeepers to allow them to purchase food and supplies in anticipation of a more heavy-handed effort to re-seal the border. By nightfall, however, the security presence largely had disappeared, the throngs were back and sidewalk trading was brisk.
Ali Ibrahim, a 31-year-old baker, locked up his shop and gazed at the Palestinians who congregated outside and begged him to let them in. Through the glass of his storefront window, they could be heard shouting, "Come on! Open for us! Please! We need to buy some bread." Ibrahim responded by throwing up his hands in helplessness.
"Security told me to close," Ibrahim said. "Why? They didn't give a reason. An officer came and told me to close the shop. It has to remain closed until they allow us to reopen."
But the downcast looks the Palestinians gave him — not to mention the prospect of lost revenue — eventually wore down Ibrahim. He motioned for the customers to meet him in the rear of the building, where he began selling bread through a back door.
"They were choking in a prison and now that prison is open," Ibrahim said. "To be honest, it's not just about profit. It makes me feel good to sell to them."
The episode underscored the inability of Egyptian security forces to rein in the tens of thousands of jubilant Palestinians who have poured into Egypt to stock up on necessities since Wednesday, when Hamas militants blew up parts of the Rafah crossing and used bulldozers to clear other sections. The Gaza Strip's 1.5 million residents have been squeezed by an economic embargo that Israel began imposing last June after the militant group seized control.
The storming of the border puts Egypt in a high-stakes diplomatic dilemma.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak risks angering the Arab world if he resorts to military force against the Palestinians, who have been hailed as heroes for breaking free from Israel's stranglehold on the Gaza Strip. However, the longer the border stays open, the greater the risk that militants can infiltrate Egypt and strengthen like-minded Islamist factions, which lead the opposition movement against Mubarak's authoritarian administration.
"It was a huge mistake by the Israelis to seal off the other crossings and create this disaster. The only beneficiary of this situation is Hamas," said a senior Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The Egyptian official, who is privy to intelligence and high-level meetings on the crisis, said that fear of a public backlash is not the only reason a military solution is untenable. He noted that Egypt is allowed to keep no more than 750 military personnel at the border - a condition stemming from a peace agreement with Israel. A third problem, the official said, is that the breached border wall lies outside of Egyptian territory in Hamas-controlled land. That means that even if the Egyptians push back the Palestinians, they have no authority to refortify a crossing located outside of their jurisdiction.
"We don't want a more chaotic situation, clashes between the security forces and the masses," said the official. "It has to be done in a wiser way, but we can't tolerate this huge threat to our national security. You have a flood of people and you don't know who they are."
Hamas has infuriated the government in Cairo by creating more openings in defiance of official requests to stop encouraging cross-border passage. The Egyptian foreign ministry announced Saturday that at least 38 security forces are hospitalized with wounds from skirmishes at the border. Some of the cases were described as critical. There were no reports of Palestinian casualties.
Perhaps fearing more clashes, the Egyptian forces scaled back their presence as Saturday wore on. A McClatchy reporter at the scene easily passed back and forth between the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of the frontier, counting exponentially more gun-toting Hamas guards than Egyptian forces.
Security was much more stringent in the nearby town of Arish, where Egyptian troops manned several checkpoints and stopped truckloads of goods from reaching Rafah. Traffic was snarled for miles and ordinary Egyptians are growing weary of the pandemonium.
"The situation cannot continue this way. These are borders," said Mohamed Gad, a spokesman for the Northern Sinai provincial government. "The plan is to empty Arish of goods so (the Palestinians) gradually will have to leave...Only when the majority of people have left will the security officers be able to close the border."
El Naggar reported from Rafah. Allam reported from Cairo. McClatchy correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed reporting from Jerusalem.