Israel protests as Egypt opens Gaza border


Jerusalem : Tensions surrounding the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has been heightened, as Israel killed six Palestinian gunmen in a military raid, and also expressed fury at Egypt for opening its border with Gaza to allow the return of hundreds of stranded pilgrims.

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The Gaza-Egypt border crossing of Rafah has been shut down since the radical Islamic movement Hamas violently seized sole control of the Gaza Strip six months ago from security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah movement.

Egypt, in a one-off gesture for the Haj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, had allowed Palestinian pilgrims to cross through Rafah on their way to Saudi Arabia.

But the move had immediately sparked a protest by Israel, who feared hard-core militants were likely to exploit the opportunity.

It demanded the pilgrims return via Kerem Shalom, a crossing point on the Egypt-Israel border, just east of Gaza, where they would have undergone Israeli security checks before being bussed back to the Strip.

But the more than 2,000 pilgrims, many of whom are Hamas supporters and some of whom are said to appear on Israel’s “wanted” list, refused to return via Kerem Shalom.

During the five days they were stranded, two women died, one of them in a scuffle between pilgrims who tried to march toward Rafah and Egyptian security forces, and another due to the cold while waiting in a camp in the Egyptian city of al-Arish, Palestinian medical officials said.

Egypt is allowing the return to Gaza “without any inspection” of scores of militants, who may be carrying weapons, large sums of money and instruction material for use in attacks against Israel, a senior Israeli government official charged Wednesday.

The move also violates an agreement, sealed in a visit to Egypt by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak last week, the official told Israel Radio.

That visit was designed to lower already high tensions between the two countries, amid Israeli accusations that Egypt was not doing enough to prevent weapons smuggling across its border with Gaza.

Sparking the row, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told legislators in Jerusalem last month that Cairo was doing a “terrible job” in preventing the smuggling.

Israel also reportedly sent a videotape to Washington, showing Egyptian border guards standing by idly as weapons were being smuggled across the border.

Egypt, which depends heavily on the US for financial aid, reacted Wednesday furiously, saying Israel was harming its interests.

Meanwhile, violence between militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and Israel has been on a steady rise during the past weeks, with the militants launching rockets at southern Israeli towns on a daily basis, and Israeli troops making brief, near-daily incursions in a bid to prevent these.

Israeli troops crossed several hundred metres into northeastern Gaza early Wednesday, reaching Gaza City’s eastern outskirts.

A military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said the force came under fire from small arms and anti-tank missiles. The soldiers returned the fire, called in air support, and reported hitting several of the gunmen, she said.

Officials at Gaza City’s Shiffa hospital confirmed six died and at least 11 were injured, three of them seriously, in the lengthy gun-battle.

The disturbances have occurred just before US President George W Bush is due to visit the region next week in an attempt to advance the peace process.