Palestine challenged on border chaos

A senior Israeli defence official on Friday challenged the Palestinian Authority to slam shut the open border between Gaza and Egypt, saying its credibility was on the line over its failure to stop the flow of gunrunners and others across the frontier.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have both said they fear al-Qaeda terrorists will infiltrate Gaza through the open Gaza-Egypt border, where Palestinians and Egyptians have been crossing with virtually no border controls since Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza on Monday.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday said the border chaos had been brought under control to a “very high degree”. But on Thursday evening, people were still crossing unfettered, though the numbers had dropped from previous days when thousands passed freely across the frontier. The flow had slowed to a trickle by Friday morning.

Palestinian interior ministry spokesperson Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said police along the border have seized 500kg of drugs, mostly marijuana, and an unspecified number of weapons.

Amos Gilad, head of the defence ministry’s diplomatic and security department, said weapons have been smuggled across the porous border and the pace is likely to pick up if Palestinians fail to act quickly.

“The Palestinian Authority is facing a supreme test of its credibility,” he told Israel Army Radio when asked about the chaos along the border. “They look like they’re running a system which has neither law nor order, neither organisation nor authority.”

Egypt deploys troops

Egypt has started deploying 750 border troops to secure its side of the frontier and prevent weapons-smuggling. But so far, they have failed to halt the flow of people and arms, including hundreds of assault rifles and pistols. Gilad, however, said he believes the Egyptians will act.

“Egypt ... has to impose down to the smallest detail a regime of security ... to stop smuggling, to stop breaches of its sovereignty. As far as I understand, the Egyptians are determined to do that,” he said.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Israelis caused the problem by not coordinating the Gaza pull-out with Palestinians.

“Mr Gilad knows very well that the whole thing was unilateral,” Erekat said. “We had to pick up the pieces after they left without them even telling us when they were going to leave.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank, saying the Palestinians could not be a partner to negotiations as long as they failed to prevent militant groups from attacking Israelis.

Show of strength

In a show of strength, hundreds of masked Hamas gunmen in military-style fatigues marched in formation on Friday through an abandoned Israeli settlement in Gaza settlement, carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

A Hamas activist, who identified himself as Abu Masab Hamad, warned the Palestinian Authority not to bow to Israeli and international demands to disarm the group.

“If it [the Palestinian Authority] gives in, we will oppose it. We shall cling to our arms like we cling to our religion.”

In a speech to the United Nations World Summit in New York on Thursday, Sharon said Palestinians are entitled to their own state, and his country has no desire to rule over them. He urged reconciliation and compromise to end their conflict, but said that after the Gaza pull-out, it is now up to the Palestinians to “prove their desire for peace” by putting a halt to terror and disarming militants.

“The Palestinians will always be our neighbours. We respect them and have no aspiration to rule over them,” Sharon said. “They are also entitled to freedom, and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.”

Sharon’s Likud party passed a resolution in 2002 opposing the creation of a Palestinian state and was also largely against the Gaza withdrawal.

‘Statement of farewell’

Commentators on Friday saw the UN speech, made in Hebrew and broadcast live during Israeli prime time, as an indication of Sharon’s intention to leave his divided party and seek a new, more centrist grouping.

“It sounded like the prime minister’s statement of farewell to his party,” Aluf Benn wrote in the daily Haaretz newspaper. “Sharon appeared to understand that he has no chance of winning in the Likud and must seek a new political way.”

The Likud’s governing central committee is to convene on September 26 for what promises to be a stormy session. Former premier Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to demand a date for primaries where he will challenge Sharon for party leadership.

Netanyahu seized on Sharon’s speech to accuse him of abandoning his conservative party faithful and turning soft on the Palestinians.

“Sharon’s speech proves that he turned leftward and will make more concessions,” he said.—Sapa-AP

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