As the angry revolt against President Hosni Mubarak entered its sixth day, Hamas officials announced the Rafah crossing would be closed for "several days," preventing hundreds of Palestinians from crossing into Egypt.
The move came after Egyptian troops stationed on their side of the crossing fled during the border's normal closure at the weekend, as angry protesters rampaged across the country.
Every day between 400 and 500 people cross from Gaza into Egypt.The border closure was likely to keep thousands trapped inside the Gaza Strip, while lack of personnel on the Egyptian side of divided Rafah would also prevent hundreds of Gazans from returning home.
With the crossing closed, Hamas bolstered its forces along the border, deploying hundreds of troops compared with the normal deployment of around 50.
The Islamist movement Hamas has so far given no official reaction to the crisis in Egypt, where more than 100 people have been killed in the biggest demonstrations to sweep the country in more than 30 years.
But the closed border did not prevent at least two Hamas security prisoners from returning to the Strip after escaping from a jail near Cairo as Egyptian authorities struggled to maintain a grip on law and order.
The two, who entered Gaza by means of cross-border smuggling tunnels, were part of a group of eight escaped Hamas convicts trying to return home, a senior official with the movement said on condition of anonymity.
The prisoners made their escape when thousands broke free from jails across Egypt amid an absence of police and chaos sparked by nationwide riots demanding the end of Mubarak's regime.
Among those who returned today was Mohammed al-Shaer, a big name on the cross-border smuggling scene, arrested six months ago, and Hassan Wishah, who served three years of a 10-year term for unspecified security offences.
The remaining six prisoners were said to have reached Egypt's port city of El-Arish and expected to reach the Gaza Strip later the same day, official sources said.
Although the prisoners managed to enter Gaza through the tunnels, all other movement of goods through the underground network ground to a halt today, sparking fears of a fuel shortage in the Israeli-blockaded territory.