Gaza chaos escalates as Egypt border blocked

Security chaos in the Gaza Strip escalated further on Wednesday when gunmen loyal to the ruling Fatah faction barred access to the border with Egypt and tried to kidnap the parents of an American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer three years ago.

After taking over a series of government buildings in the city of Rafah, around 100 gunmen supposedly loyal to Fatah then took up positions at the entrance to the border crossing, which is Gaza’s only link to the outside world.

Witnesses said the gunmen had initially allowed civilians into the terminal after checking their identities, in a bid to stop only those affiliated with the Palestinian Authority.

But they later prevented anyone from approaching the terminal, the second time in less than a week that the Rafah crossing has been forced to close.

Security sources and witnesses said the gunmen were demanding the release of a local leader of the radical al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah, who has been arrested over his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of Gaza-based British rights activist Kate Burton and her parents.

The three Britons were abducted in Rafah on December 28 but released unharmed early on Saturday.

It also emerged on Wednesday that gunmen had tried to kidnap the parents of Rachel Corrie, a United States peace activist who is regarded as a heroine by most Palestinians after being crushed to death by a bulldozer while trying to prevent houses being demolished in Rafah in March 2003.

Craig and Cindy Corrie were nearly abducted on Tuesday night from the home of a pharmacist, Samir Nasrallah, who managed to dissuade the gunmen by telling them about the background of his guests.

Nasrallah said the gunmen wanted to kidnap the Americans to use as bargaining chips to secure the release of the man held over the Burton’s kidnap.

Also on Wednesday, dozens of armed protestors loyal to Fatah occupied a string of government buildings in Rafah, including the courthouse, governor’s office and central post office.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has repeatedly pledged to address the security mess in the Gaza Strip where gunmen have long ruled the roost.

However, the situation has worsened in recent weeks with kidnappings and shootouts between militants and the security forces a near daily occurence.

Mohammed Horani, a Fatah candidate in the West Bank city of Hebron, expressed fears about the electoral fallout from the mess in Gaza.

“Of course these reprehensible acts will effect Fatah’s chances,” he said.

“These people seem to be trying to destroy the regime by kidnapping people who are friends of the Palestinians.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who is standing as Fatah candidate in the West Bank town of Jericho, also acknowledged that the security chaos would damage Fatah’s standing.

“I am sure that there will be some damage but all in all people understand that Fatah has called the elections… as a way to restore law and order,” he told Agence France Presse. - AFP

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