Battle erupts at Gaza border

Hamas official, aid blocked at crossing

December 15, 2006|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was stranded for hours at Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip yesterday after Israel prevented him from entering with tens of millions of dollars in aid, setting off gunbattles at the border crossing between Hamas militants and guards loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Haniyeh later crossed into the Gaza Strip without the money amid continued shooting, as Hamas gunmen rampaged through the border terminal at Rafah, destroying computers and surveillance cameras, witnesses said.

More than two dozen people, including Haniyeh's son, were wounded in the fighting that sent travelers diving for cover while European border monitors withdrew.

The mayhem was the latest outburst of violence between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement since the collapse of talks to form a national unity government and threats by Abbas to call new elections, and it raised fresh concerns about a slide toward civil war.

Haniyeh had cut short a trip abroad and was returning to the Gaza Strip in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

But Israel, acting on information that Haniyeh was carrying tens of millions of dollars raised abroad, alerted the Egyptian authorities and European monitors at the terminal, demanding that the crossing be closed, according to an Israeli security official and Maria Telleria, the spokeswoman for the monitors.

"This is money to strengthen the Hamas, it could find its way to terror, and Israel was not going to allow that," said the Israeli official, who declined to be named.

Hamas militants, angered by the news that Haniyeh's entry was being blocked, stormed the terminal, and a gunfight erupted with members of Abbas' Presidential Guard, who are responsible for securing the crossing. Travelers ran for cover with their luggage, and women and children hid behind walls and taxis, according to reports from the scene.

Hamas militants, chanting "God is great, let's liberate this place," took over the arrival hall, and border guards escorted the European monitors to safety, the Associated Press reported.

The Presidential Guard later regained control of the terminal, and the European monitors returned to enable Haniyeh to cross. A short while later the monitors withdrew again as Hamas militants surged back into the terminal and shooting resumed.

Under an agreement mediated by the Egyptians, the money brought by Haniyeh was to be deposited in an Egyptian bank in a Palestinian Authority account, Telleria said.

A Palestinian official said Haniyeh was carrying $35 million he raised during his trip, which included stops in Syria, Iran and Sudan.

Hamas officials have brought in more than $50 million in cash this year through the Rafah crossing, after sanctions imposed by Israel and Western donor nations have left the Palestinian government unable to pay salaries to its 165,000 employees. The donors are demanding that the Hamas government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

The chaos at the border tested an agreement brokered last year by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that gave Palestinians authority over the Rafah crossing after four decades of Israeli control. The border can operate only with the presence of European monitors, and video cameras and computers transmit data on entering travelers to a liaison office manned by Israeli, Palestinian and European representatives.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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