30 wounded in shootout; Egyptian forces pull back 1 km. from border.
By ORLY HALPERN, KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Palestinian gunmen bulldozed through the Egyptian-Palestinian border then shot and killed two Egyptian security guards and wounded 30 others in a shootout Wednesday night that exposed the increasing chaos in the Gaza Strip only three weeks before the Palestinian Legislative Council elections.
The scene was one of utter chaos, with Palestinians setting fire to car tires. An Egyptian armored vehicle was burning and hundreds of Palestinians could be seen crouched in farm fields just inside Egypt.
Palestinian Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib told The Jerusalem Post that the border breakthrough and rioting is an attempt by some gunmen to pressure the Palestinian Authority to free a man arrested for the kidnapping of three British citizens last week.
"This is part of the struggle between those trying to impose the law and order and the others," said Khatib.
But the real purpose of the violence is to prevent the elections from taking place on January 25th, said the PA minister.
"The increase of violations of law are because some Palestinians are trying to create an atmosphere not suitable for holding elections so that we postpone them."
Gen. Essam el-Sheikh, the chief of security forces in the North Sinai, said the Palestinians were firing automatic weapons and shotguns, and that the Egyptian troops were forced to pull back one kilometer from the border.
In an attempt to restore control of the Philadelphi corridor, which lies between Gaza and Egypt, Mofaz requested from the US, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to immediately deal with the chaos.
Israel views the failure of the PA to maintain control with severe gravity, Mofaz said. He warned that if Egypt and the Palestinian Authority did not bring the Philadelphi corridor under control immediately, Israel would have to shut down the Rafah crossing.
Brig. Adel Fawzi, also with the North Sinai force, said the troops were hampered initially because they had no orders to shoot. El-Sheikh, however, said Egyptian forces now were firing back.
Hundreds of Egyptians, perhaps more than a thousand, also crossed into Gaza. There are large numbers of divided families in the region, and some used the chaotic situation as an opportunity to reunite with relatives.
Officials variously estimated between 300 and 3,000 Palestinians rushed through the border after gunmen stole two heavy tractors and broke through the border wall separating Gaza from Egypt.
Shortly after the Palestinians breached the barrier, Egyptian officials cut electricity to the crossing point and imposed a curfew. Shops closed and residents of the region fled indoors in the near total darkness.
Earlier, the Palestinian militants had blocked the border crossing and took over government buildings in Gaza.
The gunmen, who belong to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, rammed through the massive wall as a show of force against the Palestinian Authority.
The gunmen's rampage through the southern Gaza town, also known as Rafah, underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza. Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm Fatah's prospects in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
Fatah-affiliated vigilantes demanding government jobs or the release of imprisoned friends have been responsible for much of the anarchy, particularly since Israel's pullout from Gaza in September.
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