Palestine moves to seal off Gaza's Egypt border

Palestinian forces fired warning shots and pushed back stone-throwing crowds on Saturday on the southern Gaza Strip’s Egyptian border, trying to reimpose order after a week of illegal crossings by thousands of people.

About 1 500 soldiers and riot police warded off mobs along the 14km-long Rafah frontier, where anarchy has reigned since Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip on Monday, security officials said.

Cranes lifted cement blocks to seal holes in the giant border fence that had been knocked out by smugglers and armed factions.

Egyptian and Palestinian police were only permitting people to head back to their native soil and not allowing anyone else to pass, limiting the traffic to one section of the wall.

They checked identification cards and gave chase to anyone who tried to vault into Egypt.

Egyptian army trucks rode up and down the border to enforce the clampdown. The flow of smuggled goods brought in by the tonne this week fell to a trickle as people hauled back only small quantities of items such as cigarettes and gasoline.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has struggled to govern Gaza amid widespread looting of Jewish settlements since Israel exited the coastal territory, vowed on Friday to bring the chaotic border situation under control.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have worried that the collapse of border controls might have allowed large quantities of weapons and illegal drugs to be smuggled into the territory.

As part of Israel’s pull-out deal from Gaza, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt had agreed to police the Rafah border, which Israel had locked down over the five-year Palestinian uprising.

But militant groups have defied Abbas, flouting his rule and exposing his government’s lack of power on the ground.

On Wednesday, people watched as militants from the Islamic movement Hamas detonated a section of Palestinian border fence, ignoring pleas from the Palestinian security forces.

The rioting spread to the northern West Bank on Saturday as Palestinians pillaged the abandoned settlement of Homesh, which Israel evacuated last month along with three other communities around Jenin, witnesses said.

With an eye to reviving the peace process, the offices of Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed the two men are to hold a summit on October 1 or 2.

It will be their first meeting since Israel completed its historic withdrawal from Gaza after a 38-year presence in the impoverished territory.

“They will discuss Israel’s next step and how to implement more of the road map,” Abbas’s spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

He was referring to an internationally drafted peace blueprint intended to pave the way for Palestinian statehood that has made next to no progress since its launch in 2003.

The New York Times reported that Sharon is threatening to block Palestinian legislative elections in June if the Islamic militant group Hamas is allowed to go ahead with its plans to participate.

“We will make every effort not to help them ... I don’t think they can have elections without our help,” the Israeli premier was quoted as saying on the sidelines of a United Nations summit in New York.

Sharon threatened to keep roadblocks and checkpoints in place across the West Bank, thereby making it impossible to reach polling stations.

The move would be a blow to Abbas, who is banking on Hamas’s participation to woo the militant group away from the armed struggle into mainstream politics.

The Palestinian Authority castigated the remarks.

“All Palestinians have a right to participate in this election and in our political life,” Abu Rudeina said.

Israel has expressed concern that Hamas could sweep away the Palestinian leader and his Fatah faction in the election.

Washington appeared reluctant to get involved in the dispute, with State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack saying the issue needs to be resolved by the Palestinians.

In other developments, the Israeli army announced it had arrested two Fatah militants in the al-Aza camp near Bethlehem and another militant from Ramallah.

Israel also freed two Lebanese shepherds who had been detained in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area on Friday, the military said.—Sapa-AFP


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