RAFAH, Egypt — Dust-covered young men carrying hundred-pound bags of cement on their shoulders scampered over the imposing iron fencing that once separated the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
Veiled women from Gaza in black abayas with six-packs of Coca-Cola bottles on their heads walked past Egyptian border police, who had orders to let the Palestinians shop. Families weighed down donkey carts with cheese, gasoline, olive oil, cigarettes, dish soap, milk, medicine, car batteries, tires and potato chips.
After seven months of living under a crippling Israeli economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian desperation exploded Wednesday.
"We've been choked, choked," said Umm Fadi, a 40-year-old mother of five, as she and her 11-year-old son stood next to an Egyptian armored personnel carrier. "Tell the Israelis to leave us alone. Tell the world to look at how we are living."
In a well-planned, pre-dawn operation, Palestinian militants used bombs, bulldozers and blowtorches to bring down sections of the 25-foot-high concrete slabs and iron border fencing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Within hours, tens of thousands of Palestinians were scrambling over the jumbled concrete slabs, walking past Egyptian border police and flooding into Egypt.
"Today is like paradise," said Ahmed Yousef, political adviser for Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister and the leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which won parliamentary elections a year ago and now controls Gaza. "This is a moment of great joy."
The 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip have been squeezed by the economic embargo that Israel began imposing last June after Hamas seized control.
Almost all the factories have closed. An estimated 80,000 people have lost their jobs. The Gaza Strip essentially has run out of everything from fresh milk to cement.
The pressure is intended to bring the Hamas leaders ruling Gaza to their knees. Israeli leaders say the sanctions will continue until Palestinian militants end their daily mortar and rocket attacks on southern Israel.
"There is no justification for demanding that we allow Gaza residents to live a normal live as long as in our streets and courtyards shells are falling and rockets are shot," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday night.
Over the weekend, Israel decided to turn up the pressure by cutting off fuel to Gaza. Its power plant was forced to shut down, throwing large swaths of the Gaza Strip into darkness Monday. Palestinian desperation was reaching a breaking point.
Wednesday's sophisticated attack appeared to have been planned weeks in advance.
Palestinian freelance journalist Zuhair Najar said he'd watched last week as Hamas militants used a bulldozer to knock down a small section of the 25-foot-high iron fencing. Blowtorches already had undermined the metal.
"They have been working on it for at least two weeks," Najar said. "They told me they were doing it to prepare for a possible Israeli attack."
On Wednesday, it was clear that long sections of the metal had been cut and toppled. Long sections of concrete slabs had been knocked over like large dominos.
Before long, Gaza residents flocked to the border, in cargo trucks, taxicab trunks, donkey carts and motorcycles.
People rushed back and forth across the border trying to stock up on basic goods that no longer can be found in Gaza.
"This is how pathetic the situation has become, that people have to literally break out of Gaza just to get food and fuel," said John Ging, the Gaza City-based director of the United Nations refugee agency. "There is no dignity for anybody."
On Wednesday, Israel delivered a smaller-than-expected, one-time shipment of fuel and food for Gaza. That could force the Gaza power plant to halve its output as soon as Thursday to conserve fuel. Beyond that, Israel hasn't promised to resume the flow of fuel and other goods, even though Olmert has vowed not to let a humanitarian crisis consume Gaza's residents.
On Wednesday, Israeli leaders expressed concern that the unregulated border could become a new route for arms smugglers.
"Gaza is already a terrorist entity where they fire rockets every day," Israeli Foreign Minister Aryeh Mekel said. "If the exit is open, the entry is open."
The Bush administration stood with Israel, saying Hamas was responsible for the suffering in Gaza.
"The Palestinians living in Gaza are living under chaos because of Hamas, and the blame has to be placed fully at their feet," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought to reassure Israel that his forces would prevent any weapons smuggling. In Cairo, Mubarak said he'd directed border guards to allow the Palestinians out of Gaza because they were starving.
"I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons," he said.
Few Palestinians are able to leave for good because Egypt maintains a strong military presence and a network of checkpoints.
Some Palestinians were trying to get into the Gaza Strip instead.
Umm Mohammed stood by a donkey cart piled with her suitcases as she waited to return to Gaza after being stuck in Egypt for six months because the border closed last June when Hamas took power.
"We can't wait to get back home," she said.
Now that the floodgates have opened, the question is when they will close.
Hamas leader Yousef said he expected the borders to be open at least of couple of days, if not a week.
"When people are starving to death it is stupid to do anything to stop them," he said.
(Hannah Allam in Cairo and special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)