RAFAH, Gaza Strip — In a bold act of defiance, frustrated Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip on Friday confronted Egyptian security forces who were attempting to reseal the broken border, then brought in a bulldozer to open yet another breach.
As Egyptian forces in riot gear looked on, Palestinians rushed through the hole and abruptly halted Egypt's attempts to close the border.
What was supposed to be the beginning of the end of a temporary escape valve for Gaza's 1.5 million residents instead became a setback for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Over three days, as many as 100,000 Palestinians have crossed into Egypt to stock up on dish soap, soda, cement, cows, camels, tires, cigarettes, cheese, dates and other household goods.
On Friday, Egyptian forces in riot gear moved to close the border again. Palestinians resisted by throwing stones, and the Egyptians responded with a water cannon and by firing warning shots.
Although four Egyptian security personnel reportedly were injured in the scuffles, Egypt's plan appeared to be working. Then, as Palestinians crowded near the border, a Palestinian bulldozer rumbled up and repeatedly rammed the last 6-foot-high, barbed wire-topped, concrete wall between Gaza and Egypt.
As cheering Palestinians rushed through the new hole, the Egyptians threw up their hands. Soon the soldiers were ordered to pull back, and the unregulated flow of Palestinians in and out of Egypt resumed.
Friday's clash could force Mubarak to choose between using potentially deadly force to seal the border with Gaza and allowing the Palestinian influx to continue.
"Hamas appears ready for a showdown," said Nick Pelham, a Jerusalem-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan research center based in Brussels, Belgium. "This has the potential to snowball."
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said after the showdown that Egypt wanted to avoid confrontation in its attempts to reseal the border.
"We are not using force to achieve this objective," Zaki said. "We are engaged in a number of talks to try to resolve this quickly."
Mubarak garnered widespread praise in the Arab world Wednesday by allowing Palestinians to flow out of Gaza after militants demolished the border walls.
However, Zaki said the government wouldn't allow Palestinians to have free access for much longer.
"This is a situation where you have a civilian population that's come under an intense humanitarian crisis," Zaki said. "They crossed the border; we let them cross. They shopped; we let them shop. And now it will take some time, but they will have to go home, and Egypt will be with them the whole time."
Since Hamas won parliamentary elections a year ago and seized control of Gaza last June, Mubarak has cooperated with attempts to isolate the militant Islamic group by largely closing Egypt's border with Gaza and by preventing Palestinians from using the only passage that Israel doesn't fully regulate.
Israel and the United States issued restrained appeals this week for Mubarak to do something about the break in the border. And Mubarak made it clear that the opening would give Palestinians only a temporary respite.
Hamas leaders reveled in Egypt's retreat Friday, which provided the Islamist forces with more ammunition in their attempt to end their international isolation.
"This is the first step in lifting the Israeli embargo," said Ahmed Yousef, the political adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' leader and deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister. "It's going to be a historic day in the Palestinian struggle."
Hamas has been struggling to end its isolation in Gaza ever since its militant wing routed fighters loyal to pro-Western Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June.
Israel and the United States have worked to marginalize Hamas by shoring up Abbas and launching a new round of peace talks.
Israel also has methodically closed down its borders with Gaza. Since June, few Palestinians have been allowed out of Gaza. Israel cut off the usual flow of food, fuel and other basic supplies, and its leaders have vowed to retain the restrictions until Gaza militants halt their daily barrage of crude rockets and mortars on southern Israel.
Now that the border with Egypt has been opened, Hamas is looking to use the standoff to force Abbas to resume reconciliation talks. Mubarak provided an opening by offering to broker negotiations in Cairo, which Hamas quickly accepted.
But Abbas will be under intense pressure from Israel and the United States not to take part because it would give Hamas a new political opening.
Pelham said Friday's clashes made it clear once again that the outside world couldn't marginalize Hamas.
"They are gaining more and more ground by playing the Egyptians off against the Israelis," Pelham said. "The attempt to isolate Hamas and induce its collapse through a boycott and siege has failed and there is no point in trying to close the door; Hamas has only grown stronger as a result."
(Hamdan is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Cairo.)