Gunfire broke out Wednesday during a Palestinian protest over Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, leaving an Egyptian border guard dead and a dozen Palestinians injured.
The riot along the border came a day after several hundred international activists clashed with police in the Egyptian port city of El Arish when they were told that a portion of their aid convoy would be allowed to enter Gaza only through Israel.
In response, the Hamas movement that rules Gaza called on supporters to demonstrate Wednesday against both Egypt’s interference with the aid convoy and its construction of an underground barrier designed to block tunnels used to smuggle goods and weapons into the coastal strip.
“It was a peaceful protest against the wall and to let the lifeline convoy enter Gaza,” said Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official.
Several hundred protesters gathered in the city of Rafah began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Egyptian security forces across the border, who responded with gunfire, witnesses said. In the midst of the chaos, a Palestinian sniper shot and killed the Egyptian guard, officials said.
By late Wednesday, portions of the humanitarian convoy had begun entering Gaza, which is squeezed between Egypt and Israel. But the violence has heightened tensions between the Egyptian government and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized control of the strip in 2007.
The tunnels that the Egyptians are seeking to block have been a key transit route for Gaza since a joint blockade by Israel and Egypt virtually sealed its borders. The countries say they are attempting to isolate and pressure Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and is suspected of trying to foment dissent in Egypt.
The primary victims, however, are the 1.5 million Gaza inhabitants, who are rarely allowed to leave and are suffering from shortages of construction materials, fuel and other goods.
Because of a lack of cement and steel, thousands of Palestinian families have been unable to rebuild homes destroyed in the three-week military offensive by Israel a year ago. The campaign, which was launched in response to repeated Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians.
The latest clashes began Tuesday when Egyptian authorities decided to route some of the Viva Palestina aid convoy, made up of more than 500 volunteers and nearly 200 trucks carrying food and medical supplies, to an Israeli checkpoint into Gaza.
“It is unacceptable and we have refused this,” said George Galloway, a British lawmaker and leader of the convoy. “It is completely unconscionable that 25% of our convoy should go to Israel and never arrive in Gaza. Because nothing that ever goes to Israel ever arrives in Gaza.”
The activists tried to break through a security gate, triggering a melee Tuesday that Egyptian police put down with water cannons.
Dozens of people were injured on both sides and seven were arrested.
After Wednesday’s riot at the border, Hamas leaders expressed regret for the day’s violence and called upon both sides to exercise restraint.
One Palestinian protester, who identified himself only as Adnan, 28, said Hamas security officers tried to break up the demonstration when it turned violent, but protesters refused to disperse.
“Egypt should open the borders and let the people breathe,” he said.
“We are surrounded by the Israelis, and the Arabs are watching us too.”
Special correspondent Hamada Abu Qamar in the Gaza Strip contributed to this report.