Palestinian security forces sealed off Gaza's southern border early yesterday, officials said, halting a chaotic flood of people into Egypt since the Israeli withdrawal from the area.
Adnan Barbach, a spokesman for the Palestinian National Security Forces, said all the gaps in the border were closed, and 2,000 security personnel were now deployed along the border. He said the Palestinians were working with Egypt to make sure that all Gazans in Egypt could return home.
Officers were seen patrolling the border area early yesterday and preventing people from crossing. Angry Palestinians turned around, and threatened to return with Hamas militants and homemade rockets. A helicopter hovered overhead.
Security along the border broke down last week after Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza. With the Israelis gone, thousands of Palestinians freely crossed into Egypt without any border checks.
Although most people traveled to shop, celebrate or reunite with relatives, Palestinian officials acknowledged that drugs and weapons were smuggled into Gaza.
The border mayhem has emerged as a key test for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is under heavy Israeli pressure to assert control in Gaza. After talks with Egyptian security officials, Abbas had promised to have the border under control by early this week.
The issue has put Abbas in a difficult situation. With legislative elections scheduled in January, Abbas needs to secure freedom of movement for his people or risk losing support to the rival Hamas movement.
But the chaos along the border makes him look weak in the eyes of the world and will make it tougher to negotiate a future border deal with Israel.
Before withdrawing, Israel agreed with Egypt to seal the Rafah terminal, Gaza's main gateway to the outside world.
Israel said it would consider allowing the terminal to reopen in six months, if the Palestinians rein in militant groups during that time. Israel fears militants will smuggle weapons into Gaza. In the meantime, all traffic in and out of Gaza is to be rerouted through Israeli-controlled crossings.
The Palestinians want immediate control of the crossing. They say the free flow of people and goods across the border is essential for rebuilding Gaza's shattered economy.