Haniyeh returns to Gaza Strip after six-hour standoff

Palestinian PM's son among wounded as Hamas, Fatah, Egyptians clash at Rafah; $35 million Haniyeh tried to bring into Gaza stays in Egypt.

Haniyeh sudan 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Haniyeh sudan 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh returned to the Gaza Strip late Thursday night after a bloody standoff between Hamas gunmen and rival Fatah forces that left 18 people wounded, including the Palestinian prime minister's son. The standoff followed the closure of the Rafah Crossing at the orders of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who sought to prevent Haniyeh from bringing into the Strip 35 million US dollars he had in his possession. An agreement had earlier been reached between Israeli and Egyptian security officials whereby the cash would remain in the border town of El Arish and then be deposited in an Arab League bank account in Cairo. The Egyptians guaranteed that the money, seemingly collected by Haniyeh during his recent visits to Iran and Sudan, would not be transferred into the Gaza Strip. Haniyeh entered Gaza after the fighting subsided, clearing the way for European monitors to open the border crossing. "I'm standing next to him," said Wael Dahab, spokesman for the pro-Fatah presidential guard. Eighteen people were wounded during the clashes, which followed the closure of the Rafah Crossing hours after Hamas gunmen tried to seize control of it. Haniyeh's son was not seriously wounded, Palestinian officials said. Witnesses said Hamas gunmen were firing at the Egyptian side of the border, drawing return fire from the Egyptians and presidential guards from Fatah. During the battle, masked gunmen in three cars and a bulldozer stormed the terminal, witnesses said. The gunmen went on a rampage inside the building, destroying computers and furniture inside and plunging the area into darkness, the witnesses said. Under an international agreement, the border can only operate in the presence of European Union monitors. The monitors fled the area after Hamas gunmen seized control of the terminal. Israeli defense officials said claimed that the money Haniyeh had attempted to bring through the Rafah terminal was to be used to fund Hamas activities. Under an agreement signed a year ago, Israel does not have the right to close the border, but it has used the threat of military action to force the border to close repeatedly in recent months. Israeli security officials stressed that they had no problems with Haniyeh personally but with the money that they claimed would be used to fund terror. Hamas gunmen angry that Haniyeh was prevented from returning to Gaza, burst into the border terminal, sparking a gun battle with guards. The Hamas members waiting outside the terminal grew impatient for Haniyeh's return and broke into the compound, shooting in the air. The Palestinian Presidential Guard, responsible for security at the terminal, began firing at them. Travelers in the terminal lobby ran for cover, some carrying their luggage. Women and children hid behind walls and nearby taxis outside. Three Palestinians were killed in the firefight, channel two reported. The Hamas members, chanting "God is Great, let's liberate this place," tried to take over the arrival hall and the border guards escorted European monitors to safety. "There is chaos here," said Wael Dahab, a spokesman for the Presidential Guard. Later as Haniyeh headed to the border in an attempt to cross a second time, two loud explosions were heard on the Gaza side and security officials said that Hamas operatives had blown a hole in the border fence about one kilometer from the terminal. Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for the monitors, said all 16 European monitors were safely evacuated during the gunfight. Haniyeh arrived in Egypt on Thursday on his way back home to the Gaza Strip after he decided to cut short his first trip abroad which included visits to Iran and Sudan. Three days ago he said that Iran had promised to give him 250 million dollars to assist in stabilizing the Palestinian situation in the Gaza Strip. Haniyeh decided to return after Wednesday's assassination of a Hamas-linked judge that came two days after gunmen shot dead the three young children of a Fatah-allied Palestinian intelligence officer. The escalation in violence has reduced the chances of forging a coalition government of Hamas and Fatah, which is led by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. On Wednesday, Haniyeh's political adviser, Ahmed Youssef, said the prime minister would return, because "we need the prime minister to be here now to resolve the internal problems." Haniyeh left Gaza on Nov. 28 and had planned to travel for a month. But his trip drew criticism because the violence raging in the Palestinian territories and the need to continue to negotiate on a new government between his Hamas party and the rival Fatah.