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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Palestinians attack Egyptian police, border guards - dozens hurt

Last update - 15:43 26/01/2008       
Dozens of Egyptian police, guards hurt in Gaza clashes
By Amir Oren, Haaretz Correspondent, and News Agencies
At least 36 Egyptian security personnel have been hospitalized, including some in critical condition, as a result of violent incidents with Palestinians on the Gaza border, the Egyptian foreign minister said Saturday.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters following a meeting with the Egyptian president and several cabinet ministers, that between 10 and 12 riot policemen and 26 border guards, including two senior officers, were all in the hospital, some in danger of losing their lives, due to "actions by Palestinian elements" over the course of the last two days.
These comments came two days after masked gunmen blew holes in the barrier wall separating Gaza from Egypt, prompting hundreds of thousands of Gazans to flood into Egypt in search of food and supplies.
Aboul Gheit on Saturday complained of provocations at the border, a thinly veiled reprimand of Hamas, who controls the Gaza Strip, and said that while Egypt is ready to ease the suffering of Gazans, "this should not endanger Egyptian lives."
"These provocations cause us concern and our Palestinian brothers should note that the Egyptian decision to host them and ease their suffering should not result in threats to the lives of our sons in the Egyptian forces," he said.
There were reports of Hamas gunmen opening fire Friday on Egyptian security forces attempting to stem the flow of Palestinians into the Egyptian border town of Rafah.
Aboul Gheit said that for now Egyptians forces would show self control in the face of these provocations and continue to let Palestinians into Rafah to buy supplies.
"The Egyptian decision has been to allow in the sons of Gaza to ease their suffering," he said. "This was the Egyptian decision taken a few days ago and we are still holding to it."
He added that the Egyptians were hoping to regulate the entry and exist of the Palestinian people as well as engage in talks with the concerned parties to devise a new border system.
Earlier Saturday, Egyptian border guards in armored personnel carriers were seen taking up positions around the various breaches in the frontier wall in Rafah, but not impeding the flow of people. Palestinians were not allowed to drive out of the town of Rafah into the rest of Egypt, however.
On the Gaza-Egypt border, traffic of cars and pedestrians remained heavy Saturday, four days after the wall was initially breached.
In an attempt to restore some control, Egyptian armored vehicles blocked the main street of the Egyptian border town of Rafah, causing a snarled traffic jam of honking cars filled with Gazans shopping for fuel, food and consumer products.
Earlier Saturday, dozens of riot police had formed human chains to block the two passages cut through the breached border, before giving up and allowing the cars to cross into the Egyptian side of the divided town. Authorities were making renewed efforts, however, to keep them out of the rest of the country.
The deployment marked the second attempt by Egypt in two days to regain control over the border.
Egyptian police set up checkpoints after the border, and Palestinians could drive no further than the coastal town of El Arish, about 35 kilometers from Gaza. In getting to El Arish, Palestinian motorists had to use side roads to avoid Egyptian police checkpoints.
Israel, meanwhile, expressed growing concern about the possible influx of Palestinian militants into areas of Egypt that border Israel. The Israeli military announced Saturday that its troops are on heightened alert along the Egypt-Israel border, and that an Israeli road and tourism sites in the area are temporarily closed.
On Friday, Egyptian police abandoned their positions after failing to reseal the breached frontier with human chains, guard dogs and water cannons.
In a direct challenge to Cairo, Hamas militants on Friday morning used a bulldozer to knock over a new section of the border wall. Hamas vowed to keep breaches in the border wall open until crossings into the Strip are reopened.
"The gaps shouldn't be closed because they provide urgent assistance to the Palestinians," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Egyptian security personnel had initially deployed Friday along the border in a human chain - in some places as many as nine rows deep - and Palestinians were reportedly told the frontier would be sealed by 7 P.M. local time.
Clashes ensued however, and Egyptian forces took up positions a few steps into Palestinian territory, using shields to protect themselves from some Gazans who climbed atop car roofs and threw stones at them. Witnesses said a photographer was lightly injured in the clash.
At one point guards aimed a water cannon above the heads of people, not at them, to keep them back.
An Egyptian soldier was reported slightly wounded in the leg, likely from gunshots fired by Hamas militiamen sporadically from the Gazan side, said an Egyptian officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.
Five policemen were also injured by stones hurled by Gazans protesting the attempts to restrict their movement into Egypt.
By mid-afternoon, Egypt eased up on the attempts to restrict the cross-border movement. Hundreds of riot police suddenly left a border crossing at Rafah, to march back into the Egyptian side of the divided town, and Gazans again streamed by the hundreds through the regular crossing.
Mubarak: Gaza situation unacceptable, Israel must lift siege
In an interview published Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the situation in Gaza unacceptable and called on Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on all crossings into Gaza last week.
"They should get things back to normal according to previous agreements and understandings," Mubarak told the weekly Al-Osboa. He also invited rival Palestinian factions to Cairo for talks, but did not mention a date.
Yousef Mohammed, 17, from Gaza, said he had waited until Friday to make the trip because he was trying to get together enough money first to shop in Egypt. "They don't want us to go in," he said, pointing at the riot police.
Egyptian Amira Ali, 39, carrying her toddler son and holding a 6-year-old son by the hand, said she wants to visit her mother-in-law in Gaza. "Of course, I'm afraid [of being trapped in Gaza], but will try to go for a while so my mother-in-law can see the kids," she said.
The opening of the border, even if temporary, provided a significant popularity boost to Gaza's Hamas rulers, who can claim they successfully broke through the internationally supported Israeli closure that has deprived the coastal strip of normal trade and commerce for nearly two years.
Both Egypt and Israel restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006, and further tightened the closure after Hamas seized control of the area by force last June.
IDF closes hiking trails, tourist sites near border
The Israel Defense Forces announced a temporary closure of all tourist trails and sites near the Israel-Egypt border early on Saturday. The moves comes as defense officials warn of possible terrorist attacks emanating from Sinai.
Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip have used the newly open border with Egypt to send numerous terrorists into the Sinai peninsula over the last two days, with the goal of then sending them from Sinai into Israel to commit attacks, defense officials said Thursday.
As a result, the section of Highway 10 abutting the Israel-Egypt border has been blocked to traffic. In addition, authorities have sealed off hiker trails, including the Agur Sands, Be'er Milha, the Be'erotaim area, the Azuz region, Burot Lotz, Nahal Akrav, Nahal Eilot, Har Ramon, the Arod passage, Har Sagi, Har Karkum, Sha'ar Znifim, the Eilat hills, Ein Netafim, Nahal Zfahot, Nahal Shlomo, Nahal Yehosafat, Nahal Gershon, Nahal Shani, and Hakenyon Headom.
The IDF, the police and the Shin Bet security service have consequently beefed up their forces and their alert level along the Israeli-Egyptian border in an effort to thwart infiltrations. Should terrorists succeed in entering Israel from Sinai, one defense official said, they might commit suicide bombings, kidnap soldiers or civilians, or attack small agricultural communities or military outposts.
In addition, the counterterrorism unit in the Prime Minister's Office warned Israelis against visiting Sinai and urged those who are already there to leave, since the flow of terrorists from Gaza also increases the likelihood of terror attacks in Sinai's tourist resorts. Egypt is also worried about the possibility of terror attacks in Sinai.
One member of the counterterrorism unit noted that the open border not only enables terrorists to enter Sinai, but would also make it easier for them to smuggle an abducted Israeli back into Gaza.

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