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On The Ground In Rafah: Egypt Sends Mixed Messages

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RAFAH, Egypt - The town of Rafah and the Gaza border crossing just down the road told two different stories Thursday about how the Egyptian government is handling the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The border bustles with ambulances providing urgent assistance to Palestinian victims. Rafah town, however, is bristling with a different kind of activity as Egyptian soldiers guard against a possible influx of Palestinian refugees.

The Mubarak government's mixed reaction to the conflict across the border is highlighted at the border, where only medical supplies are permitted to cross into Gaza.

Fleets of aid organizations from the Islamic world lined up to send assistance. Coming the other way, the wounded were ferried out of Gaza by the Red Crescent and other organizations to receive medical attention in Egypt.

Meanwhile, an army of aid workers waited with their trucks, which were stacked with essentials from aspirin to wheelchairs.

When the gates opened at about 11 a.m., the first to cross were 14 trucks from the Egyptian Medical Syndicate. Turkish and Saudi trucks followed. A Libyan convoy is scheduled to arrive on Saturday.

Mehmet Kaya, leader of the Turkish convoy, waited all day to get through the border. He said the tedious paperwork would delay supplies that are needed immediately in Gaza.

"The situation is not good in Gaza," he said. "There are a lot of patients, but not enough medicine."

In the no-man's-land separating Egypt from Gaza, Red Crescent employees transferred patients from Palestinian ambulances to Egyptian ones, as select news organizations were permitted to record the work.

The wounded included men, women and children of all ages. Most victims stared blankly as dozens of onlookers watched the transfer between vehicles. Some of the injured cried out in pain.

More than 20 ambulances came through the Rafah border Thursday, though a game of political chess between Egypt and Hamas prevented even more from arriving.

"There is no problem from us," said Tarek Al Mohalawy, manager of General Health Services for North Sinai. "I can deal with 500 [patients] at the same time. The problem is on the other side."

Just two and half miles from the cooperation at the Gaza gate, Egypt's half of divided Rafah looked like a military installation. Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers lined the streets of the tiny town, while military trucks and metal barricades slowed traffic to a standstill.

Unwilling to be caught off guard again, as they were in January 2008 when Palestinians blew up the Gaza wall and stormed into Egypt by the thousands, the Egyptian military is bracing for a flood of Palestinians seeking refuge that may result from an Israeli ground invasion.

The people of the town are becoming increasingly impatient with the Israeli air raids.

When the bombs hit, "My house shook violently," said Rafah resident Emel Hosni. "And my daughter, she cried and cried."

She bemoaned Israel's destruction of the smuggling tunnels which had become an integral part of Rafah's economy on both sides of the security wall.

"The Palestinians can't eat or drink, so if you're going to blow up the tunnels, you need to feed the people," Hosni said.

The constant overhead presence of the Israeli Air Force has added to the tension. At noon an Israeli reconnaissance plane looped over Rafah, occasionally crossing into Egyptian airspace. Several hours later, the roar of jet engines could be heard again, although the planes were hidden by low-hanging clouds.

The anger of the people of Rafah has been a personal burden, rarely spilling into a public forum. But one public protest took place on a hill overlooking both halves of the divided city where several boys gathered a pile of tires and lit them ablaze to protest the Israeli bombing. The thick black smoke drifted out over the Mediterranean.

"We are doing this for Palestine, so they may see it," said one of the boys.

Determined to maintain control over the border situation, the Mubarak government has clamped down tightly on access to Rafah and has made aid distribution a challenge. But aid organizations are determined to use windows of opportunity to provide assistance, and hope, to the people of Gaza.

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