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Fence that fell brought Arabs together -- briefly

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  • Gazan tells CNN's Ben Wedeman: "We are one people in two countries"
  • Wedeman says the fall of the border fence may have ripple effects
  • Gazan on relations with Egypt: "We need them; they need us"
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By Ben Wedeman
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, CNN's Ben Wedeman offers his insight as Gazans flocked into Egypt when a border wall came down last week.

GAZA (CNN) -- There is something almost indescribably exhilarating about suddenly evaporating borders, an almost palpable electricity that pulses through the air.

It was breathtaking to watch as tens of thousands of people poured over what once was a towering Israeli-built iron wall, a seemingly insurmountable barrier between Gaza and the world, now a walkway through which Palestinians strolled into Egypt.

In the days of the Ottoman Empire, there were no borders and no walls across much of what is now the Middle East. You could travel from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo to Tunis without a question asked. Then came the era of the nation state, when Arabs became Egyptian or Iraqi or Tunisian.

But the depth of desire for unity, for freedom of movement in the Arab world remains profound. And you only need cross a border in this region to understand why. Video Watch the Gaza breakout »

As a foreigner I enjoy five-star treatment, but I know that for the ordinary Iraqi or Syrian or Jordanian, borders can be tedious, wearying affairs, where officials are abusive and frequently demand petty bribes or help themselves to whatever they fancy in your bags.

Major Arab political movements have been inspired by the ideal of unity -- the Parti Populaire Syrien, which calls for the reunification of a Greater Syria; the now-discredited Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party (which ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein and still holds sway in Syria), which advocates the creation of an Arab super state stretching from the Persian Gulf to Morocco; and the Islamic Liberation Party, which believes in the restoration of the Muslim caliphate and considers all governments and borders illegitimate.

They may seem like pie-in-the-sky ideologies to outsiders, but they have a potent appeal to Arabs weary of corrupt and repressive regimes.

At the Salahadin Gate, the main ad-hoc crossing between Gaza and Egypt, I met a middle-aged man, wearing a suit and tie, carrying a bulky suitcase, accompanied by his wife and teenaged son. He explained calmly but urgently in fluent English that he was hoping to go to Cairo, to put his son on a plane to Morocco where he was supposed to go to a university. Photo See photos of Gazans streaming over the border »

I don't know if they ever made it to Cairo, since Egyptian security forces weren't letting Gazans go beyond the town of Al-'Arish, 40 kilometers west of Rafah. For them, borders are an obstacle.

Most people I spoke with were thrilled with the open borders. "We need food and fuel and medicine, everything," one man told me. "And the Egyptians need our business. This is how this should be. We need them; they need us."

"We are one people in two countries," another told me. "We should be one country."

Not everyone was pondering lofty ideals. "I need to get to Cairo," a Gazan who had an American passport told me. "I haven't had a beer in five years."

Egyptians -- identifiable by their unique accents -- mixed easily with the hard-bitten, toughened Gazans, one and all caught up in a frenzy of buying and selling, at the same time reveling in the revolution.

Of course, there were moments of tension -- for example when the Egyptian border guards temporarily stopped Gazans from entering Egypt. Rocks were thrown in both directions, curses hurled with equal gusto. But when the Egyptians relented and stepped aside again, it was all handshakes and hardy greetings, shouts of thanks to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for allowing the border to stay open.

We even saw roses being passed to the Egyptian border guards.

There are so many dimensions to what happened on the border that it's hard to list them all. The Gazan "breakout" has been good for Hamas, which controls this narrow, poverty-stricken strip of land. It's won praise from Palestinians across the political spectrum.

Pro-western Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had publicly appealed to Israel to ease the blockade of Gaza, only to have those appeals bruskly brushed aside. Many Gazans we spoke to believe Hamas also took advantage of the open border to bring in weapons, although Hamas strenuously denies that.

The collapse of the border -- if only for a few days -- also calls into question Israel's efforts to squeeze Hamas, which was based on the belief that restricting the flow of fuel and goods to Gaza would create public pressure on Hamas to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

And it's a reminder to Washington that its drive for a Middle East peace deal is all the more difficult without Hamas. Last year the United States backed Abbas and his security forces, only to see them swiftly defeated by Hamas in Gaza. Washington tacitly backed the Israeli blockade on Gaza, and now that has collapsed. The tentative hopes raised by the Annapolis Mideast summit last November and by President Bush's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, during which he reiterated his determination to work out a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, risk being overtaken by events.

Events in Gaza also put President Mubarak of Egypt in a quandary. On the one hand, the United States -- the source of more than $2 billion in economic and military aid -- and Israel wanted a swift closure of the border. On the other, many Egyptians, including the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, were agitating with ever greater voice that Egypt come to the rescue of the people of Gaza.

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The situation on the border with Egypt won't go on for much longer. Monday morning, we watched as Egyptian troops unrolled loops of barbed wire in front of the low cement wall that marks the Egyptian side of No Man's Land. Gradually the situation is coming under control.

But a precedent has been set. For a few days at least, the man-made frontier separating Egypt and Gaza disappeared and what took its place seemed natural to people on both sides. But the brief fall of the Gaza border may cause a shudder along other frontiers that divide Arab from Arab. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About George W. BushIsraelPalestinian National AuthorityEgypt

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