A senior Hamas official warned yesterday that the next breakout from the Gaza Strip could be into Israel, with 500,000 Palestinians attempting to march towards the towns and villages from which they or their parents fled or were expelled 60 years ago.
“This is not an imaginary scenario and many Palestinians would be prepared to sacrifice their lives,” said Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.
Israeli minister Ze’ev Boim said the threat must be taken seriously in light of the successful Hamas breakout into Egyptian territory on Wednesday, adding: “We must learn from what has just happened there.”
Egypt moved last night to end the great Gaza breakout, which had reverberated throughout the region as all sides tried to come to grips with its implications.
Egyptian security forces announced by loudspeaker in towns near the border with the Gaza Strip that it would be closed from 3pm (midnight AEDT), with an unknown number of Palestinians still in Egypt.
Riot police turned water cannon on Palestinians trying to cross into Egypt, despite Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak saying earlier that he would not allow the people of Gaza to starve.
Hamas, riding high on its operational success, sought to parlay it into political gain by seeking Egyptian approval for new border arrangements that would give Hamas for the first time a role in the vital crossing point at Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Israeli security officials said Hamas and other militant groups had already exploited the breach in the border wall to send “numerous” armed men into Sinai with the aim of infiltrating into Israel along the long, largely undefended, border between Sinai and Israel.
The Israeli road running the length of the border was yesterday shut to civilian traffic and the army deployed reinforcements in the area.
The officials said the militants were eager to hit back at Israel for heavy casualties in Israeli attacks in recent weeks and that attacks from Sinai were likely to come within the next two weeks.
Israeli civilians on vacation along Sinai’s Red Sea coast were advised to return to Israel for fear Palestinian militants would try to seize them as hostages.
Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilna’i said yesterday the breakout into Egypt was an opportunity for Israel to rid itself of its responsibility to supply Gaza with electricity and water and to serve as a channel for Gaza’s imports and exports.
“When Gaza is open to the other side we lose responsibility for it,” he said. “We want to disconnect from it.”
Egypt, however, has made it clear it does not want responsibility for the troublesome strip, whose Islamic militants are ideological partners of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It particularly does not want indirect responsibility for the rockets fired from the strip into Israel.
The crossing point had been closed since Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip last June.
If Mr Mubarak were to allow new border arrangements with Hamas that would permit a free flow of people and goods, it would violate Egypt’s agreement with the international “Quartet” — the US, UN, European Union and Russia — for a border terminal without Hamas involvement and with cameras permitting Israel to monitor the crossing.
However, Mr Mubarak would find it hard, not least for his image in the Arab world, to be seen as party to a renewed siege of the Palestinians.
Israel says it will continue its siege until the rocket firing ceases, with an invasion of Gaza a likelihood if the rocketing does not cease.