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Sprung Palestinians shop till they drop

January 24, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

EL ARISH, EGYPT — Dusty, wind-swept and in the throes of a shopper's high, Sobheya Hemeid sat wedged Wednesday in the back of a pickup amid 10 of her relatives and bags of toothpaste, detergent, tea, sugar, medicine, chocolates and two bunches of fake flowers.

"They're for a wedding back home," the Gaza Strip widow said. But before she could say any more the Bedouin at the wheel accelerated and the truck raced across the desert, dodging teetering taxis, lopsided buses and wobbly donkey carts carrying tens of thousands of Palestinians on an impulse buying binge across northern Egypt's Sinai towns.

It was a confusing, strange and joyous adventure. Palestinians streamed through a blown-up border wall at Rafah and temporarily left the despair of their homeland behind. They flooded past Egyptian police, followed Bedouin trackers across the dunes, walked for miles, hopped rides, slipped through barbed wire before filling plastic bags with milk, cheese, candy bars and Cleopatra cigarettes. Some bought cement; others bricks. The richer among them hired cars to bring back their haul of TVs, car tires, appliances, clothes and, in at least one case, a goat.

"We've been denied things for almost a year," said Mohamed Gueider, who balanced in the back of a pickup with 20 other men. "We left Rafah walking at 9 a.m. When we saw police checkpoints we walked around them. And now we have found this truck. I want to eat and then I have to buy milk to take home for my children."

The caravan that stretched before and behind Gueider had shopped its way through Rafah and smaller nearby towns before heading for El Arish, the capital of North Sinai, which, in reality, is a poor, seaside city of about 120,000. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the police to allow the Palestinians to enter El Arish, about 25 miles southwest of Rafah, but the presence of security forces below the city suggested they would not be allowed farther southwest toward Cairo.

Palestinians said their long isolation in Gaza, controlled by the radical Islamic group Hamas, has denied them much. Power outages caused when Israel cut fuel supplies to Gaza in retaliation for rockets fired into Israel spurred the anger that led to Wednesday's reverse exodus. The flight began around dawn following Hamas' destruction of much of the border wall. It was not known how long the border would remain open, but Egyptian authorities said they would not use force against the Palestinians.

"I'll go back to Gaza after I shop," said Ayman Eissa, a computer engineer who waited along a sandy road for a ride into El Arish, where he planned to buy propane tanks and lanterns. "No Palestinians will stay in Egypt. They have families in Gaza. But coming out of Gaza today was like taking a new breath. It is a victory against Israel and America. It doesn't matter if we would have stayed in Gaza today or not, or if Israel allows fuel deliveries or not. Nothing will change."

Amid bargain-hunting and money-lending, Palestinians carried the divides that separate them at home. Some supported Hamas, but others backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement was driven out of Gaza by Hamas last year after a unity government collapsed. Several former police officers loyal to Abbas said they would not return to Gaza and would instead sneak to Cairo.

"I hold Hamas responsible for all these problems," said Eissa Fares. "They are liars. I don't want to go back. There's no water, no food. There's not even enough electricity to charge your phone."

Another, Mohamed Goude, said, "I blame Abbas and Hamas. Hamas because they strike at Israel and Abbas for not providing us with security. We need an international force to keep peace in Gaza."

Baybars Ramadan, an Egyptian Bedouin, was thinking economics, not politics. He scratched his gray stubble and doubted that his nation, where about 45% of the people live on less than $2 a day, could handle the human deluge; he was charging Palestinians the equivalent of 90 cents for an eight-mile truck ride from a police checkpoint into El Arish.

"The conditions in Egypt are already bad," he said. "We have bread problems and we Bedouins are poor. The army won't let the Palestinians go beyond El Arish, but if they stay in El Arish they will starve because there's not enough food for both Palestinians and Egyptians."

Mohamed Ahmed's small store had a big line. One man was pricing toothpaste; another, biscuits. He stayed patient, figuring that his stocks would last four days. "They've been coming since noon in large numbers," he said. "They're mainly buying milk and cigarettes."

Night fell and the streets of El Arish were cramped with thousands of tired, happy strangers who seemed in no particular hurry to leave. Cars could barely budge, shopkeepers bargained, prospective customers shook their heads, boys with yellow gas cans darted from pump to pump, the steps of the mosques were crowded; the police retracted, outnumbered. One Palestinian whispered to a gas station attendant: "We need a place to sleep."

"How many?"

"Five."

"Come back in an hour."

--

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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