Palestinian police begin clampdown along Gaza’s chaotic border with Egypt
RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Palestinian forces sealed off five major breaches along Gaza’s southern border Saturday, firing warning shots and clashing with stone-throwing crowds in their strongest effort yet to halt the chaotic flood of people in and out of Egypt since Israel withdrew from the area.Throughout the day, crowds pelted Palestinian and Egyptian troops and managed to force their way across the border. But in contrast to previous days, the forces appeared determined to carry out Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ promise to have the border under control by early next week. Eight people were wounded.Also, about 60 members of rival Palestinian security units engaged in a shootout in the center of the West Bank town of Ramallah after two officers feuded over a parking space, security officials said. No one was hurt.Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians poured into two empty West Bank settlements evacuated by Israel last month, setting fires and rushing off with piles of wood and other debris.The border mayhem and other unrest reflected the challenge that Abbas faces in asserting control after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israel says there can be no progress in peace talks until Abbas imposes law and order.Since Israel completed its withdrawal last week, thousands of people have crossed freely between Gaza and Egypt. Most people have gone to shop or see long-lost relatives, but Palestinian officials acknowledge that drugs and assault rifles also have entered Gaza.Early Saturday, helmeted Palestinian riot police patrolled the border area, checking documents and bags carried by Palestinians returning from Egypt. Police also prevented Gazans from entering Egypt, witnesses said.Palestinian bulldozers and cranes began closing holes in the border barriers, and Egyptian border guards rolled out barbed wire to keep trespassers out. By late Saturday, five of 14 holes in a border fence had been sealed with large concrete barriers.”Egypt issued orders first not to let anyone through and we followed suit. Our dream is to have an Egyptian-Palestinian border without Israel or its approval. God willing, this will happen,” said Palestinian riot policeman Abdel Aziz Hamdan.Throughout the day, Palestinian crowds threw stones at both Palestinian and Egyptian police, who fired in the air. Palestinians tore down parts of a wire fence, surged through the opening and knocked baton-wielding Egyptian security forces to the ground.”We were locked up by the Jews, now the Egyptians are going to lock us up?” said Rafah resident Kamel Tarabini. “If they close this border, Egyptians and Palestinians will become enemies.”Eight Palestinians were wounded, including two people by gunfire, hospital officials said.After a meeting with Egyptian security officials, Abbas promised Friday to have the border under control within three days. But he has a dilemma.Facing a challenge from the Islamic militant group Hamas in upcoming legislative elections, Abbas needs to secure freedom of movement for his people. However, the chaos increasingly makes him look weak in the eyes of the world and will make it tougher to negotiate a future border deal with Israel.Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio that recent events in Gaza “were not encouraging,” and it’s unlikely Israel will make more concessions if the Gaza experiment fails.Before completing its withdrawal last week, Israel agreed with Egypt to close the Rafah border terminal, the main gateway for Gaza’s Palestinians to the outside world. In a deal with Israel, Egypt is to deploy 750 forces along the border.Israel says the Rafah terminal should remain closed for six months while security arrangements are finalized and to give Abbas time to control militants. In the meantime, traffic from Gaza would be routed through alternate Israeli-controlled crossings.The Palestinians reject the plan.The fate of the border and a new Israeli demand that Hamas be barred from the upcoming Palestinian elections are expected to be raised at a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The summit is tentatively set for Oct. 2, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday.Sharon told The New York Times that if Hamas runs, Israel could make it difficult for Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank to reach polling stations, by not easing travel restrictions on the day of the vote.”I don’t think they (Palestinians) can have elections without our help,” Sharon told the Times.Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks on Israelis in the past two decades. Hamas leaders have said the group will continue to build its private army and carry out attacks in Israeli-controlled areas.Abbas hopes Hamas, which is expected to make a strong showing in the election, will eventually transform itself into a political party and disband its armed wing.Erekat said any Israeli interference would only hurt Abbas and strengthen Hamas.Mohammed Ghazal, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, accused Israel of acting in an undemocratic fashion.”If we win the Palestinian election, our top priority will be rebuilding the economic and social and cultural life, rebuilding what Israel has destroyed. We are not thinking of destroying Israel,” he said.