Smugglers sneak weapons into Gaza after Israeli soldiers withdraw
RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Palestinian gunrunners smuggled hundreds of assault rifles and pistols across the Egyptian frontier into Gaza, dealers and border officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The influx confirmed Israeli fears about giving up border control and could further destabilize Gaza.Black market prices for weapons dropped sharply, with AK-47 assault rifles nearly cut in half to $1,300 and even steeper reductions for handguns.News of the smuggling came as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas tried to impose order following the Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza this week. Militant groups scoffed at a new Palestinian Authority demand that they disband after parliamentary elections in January, saying they would not surrender weapons.Israel voiced concern about chaos along the Egypt-Gaza border in the three days since its pullout, sending messages to the United States, Egypt and the Palestinians. “We will not put up with this,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.Egypt had assured Israel it would prevent weapons smuggling once its troops took over from Israel along the Gaza frontier, and Cairo and the Palestinian Authority pledged to seal the once-heavily defended border by Wednesday evening. Thousands had crossed unhindered since Monday.In New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he expected Egypt to bring the border under control.”I imagine the Egyptians will get a grip,” he said. “There is heavy American pressure on Egypt and the Palestinians on this issue.”Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, about two hours after the deadline for closing the border, an Egyptian officer bellowed into a bullhorn for Palestinians to stop entering Egypt and prepare to return to Gaza.The frontier was still porous later, however, with Egyptian police pushing back Palestinians scaling the concrete wall on the Gaza side and trying to sneak through the barbed-wire fence on the Egyptian side. Up to 750 Egyptian border guards were expected Thursday morning, Egyptian police said.Palestinian security forces in Gaza apparently were doing little to stop infiltrators. At midday, Hamas militants blew a hole in the Gaza wall, making it even easier for people to enter the 18-foot-wide buffer zone leading to Egypt’s fence.Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa told AP that the border was officially closed as of 6 p.m. but that Palestinians and Egyptians caught on the wrong side were being allowed to cross. He said there had been a small amount of arms smuggling.Earlier Wednesday, Egypt confiscated 38 firearms and three rocket-propelled grenades in a tunnel under the border, an Egyptian official said. On the Palestinian side, guards said they seized nearly 600 pounds of marijuana.Three arms dealers told AP their “mules” bought large quantities of assault rifles, pistols and bullets in Egypt, mainly from Bedouin tribesmen, in the three days since Israel’s withdrawal. Prices in Egypt are far lower than in Gaza, where during Israeli rule smugglers tunneled under the border to bring in weapons.Since Monday, black-market weapons prices have plunged in Gaza, the dealers said. An AK-47 assault rifle fell from $2,000 to $1,300, while bullets cost as little $1, a fourth the old price.Egyptian-made pistols that sold for $1,400 are now as little as $180, and an Italian pistol costs $400, down from $3,500, said an arms dealer who identified himself only as Khader, for fear of arrest.Khader, interviewed by phone, said his runners came back mainly with pistols and bullets, rather than assault rifles and grenade launchers. “My people brought me lots of things, including pistols and gold,” he said.Another dealer, interviewed in a car outside the Rafah cemetery, said hundreds of AK-47s had been smuggled from Egypt since Monday. He said he sold his loot to militants but declined to say how many pieces his runners brought back.A third dealer, who gave his name as Hafez, said competitors reported having $1 million worth of loot confiscated, including grenade launchers. “That’s why everyone was focusing on small pieces,” he said.Hafez said many Palestinians want to buy pistols. “It’s time for personal protection,” he said.Assault rifles and pistols could intensify violence among rival Palestinian groups but would not pose a direct threat to Israel, which has sealed Gaza with a complex of barriers.But Israeli lawmaker Yuval Steinitz of the ruling Likud Party said he worried about rockets fired from Gaza. During fighting, Palestinians have launched hundreds of homemade rockets at Israeli border towns.”When people cross from side to side, terrorists cross, and weapons pass, too,” Steinitz told Channel 10 TV. “That’s what worries us. And this could have been avoided.”Abbas’ top aide, Rafiq Husseini, outlined what he said was a new security plan.”Our plan is that … by the (January) election, the Palestinian street will be cleaned of militias and illegal weapons,” he said.Husseini said that starting next week, militants in the ruling Fatah movement would be absorbed into security forces. Abbas would insist that all groups participating in the election disarm after the vote.Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar rejected that. “We will not allow for even one gun to be taken away from us,” he said. “Why should we give up our weapons while Israel still threatens our borders?”In the West Bank, meanwhile, about 50 Israeli settlers snuck into one of the four settlements that were evacuated last month and barricaded themselves on the roof of Sanur’s old British fort, police said.Israel Radio reported early Thursday that police and soldiers were removing the infilatrators by force, and a police spokesman said authorities were considering filing charges against them.Unlike Gaza, the northern West Bank is not fenced off and Israeli soldiers are patrolling the area trying to keep extremists from reoccupying the four abandoned sites.—Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.