Israel riled as Gazans cross Rafah

Defense official to 'Post': Action grounds for diplomatic crisis; Egypt: Israel informed in advance.

rafah return 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rafah return 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Defense officials slammed Egypt on Wednesday after it allowed hundreds of stranded Gazan pilgrims returning from Mecca to cross into the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing. Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials said Egypt's decision to open the crossing from Sinai was made at the behest of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah. Officials told The Jerusalem Post that at least two dozen senior Hamas members were part of the group of pilgrims that crossed the border and were believed to be carrying tens of millions of dollars that they had collected in Saudi Arabia. In addition, some of the Hamas members were believed to have undergone advanced military training in Iran. The pilgrims included former ministers in the Hamas government, as well as senior members of Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam, the defense officials said. "This is against all agreements," a senior defense official said, saying that Egypt's decision to open up the Rafah crossing against Israeli objections exactly one week after Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Egypt for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was "grounds for a diplomatic crisis." The official said that while the decision to open Rafah harmed Israeli interests, it would cause far more damage to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, since the move was viewed as a victory for Hamas and undermined Abbas and his government in Ramallah. The decision to open the Rafah crossing ended a five-day standoff during which some 2,000 Palestinians were stranded in temporary camps in el-Arish in the Sinai. Two people, one carrying a large cloth bag, were the first to pass through the Rafah terminal; they were greeted by green-vested Hamas representatives. The two were followed by a flood of returning pilgrims. Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the Foreign Ministry had any official reaction to the Egyptian decision. But one diplomatic official said that if "people crossed unfettered from Sinai into Gaza, not following the right procedures, that would be a contradiction to the agreements previously reached." Israeli officials denied that the Egyptian decision had anything to do with the heightened diplomatic tension between Israel and Egypt stemming from increased Israeli criticism of Egypt's failure to stop the smuggling of arms and terrorists from Sinai into Gaza. Rather, the officials said, the decision was based on Egypt's assessment that it has more to lose domestically by angering Hamas and having the pilgrims go through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, than by angering Israel and letting them in through Rafah. Not only would angering Hamas be unpopular with Egyptian public opinion, which would see the Mubarak government as colluding with Israel, but it could also give Hamas added incentive to cause problems for Mubarak among Egypt's not insignificant fundamentalist Muslim population. Last month, Egypt raised Israeli ire when it unilaterally opened the Rafah crossing and allowed the pilgrims to leave Gaza. Israel had asked Egypt to have the pilgrims return to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom, crossing where they would undergo security inspections by the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Fearing capture by the Israelis, Hamas leaders among the pilgrims refused to go through the alternate crossing. The pilgrims rioted in temporary camps set up for them by Egypt and threatened a hunger strike before Egypt finally opened its border on Wednesday. "Thank God we made it. Our patience led us to results," said Samiha Qeshta, 59, an exhausted-looking pilgrim from Rafah. An Egyptian official said Wednesday that Israel had been "informed" of the Egyptian decision to let the pilgrims back. Muhammad Madhoun, a senior Hamas official who greeted the pilgrims, said their return was a victory for Hamas. "This is a good sign of things to come. God willing, no American or Zionist pressure will affect our will and determination and the will of the Palestinian people and the Egyptian people who stood by us," he said. Hamas leaders expressed deep satisfaction over the decision, hailing it as a "major victory" for the Islamist movement. PA officials, on the other hand, took credit for solving the plight of the pilgrims who had been stranded on Egyptian soil for the past week. They announced that the pilgrims were allowed to return to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah terminal thanks to the intervention of Abbas, who met earlier in Cairo with Mubarak to discuss the crisis. The PA and Egypt had previously opposed Hamas's request to allow the pilgrims to use the Rafah border crossing, insisting that they return through Israeli-controlled terminals. Hoping to use the crisis to undermine Hamas's credibility, the PA was said to have urged the Egyptians not to allow the pilgrims to return home through the Rafah border crossing. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said the decision on the pilgrims was not made in retaliation for criticism Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made against Egypt last week. "It should not be seen in this context," he said, calling the matter a humanitarian issue. A top PA official in Ramallah told the Post that although he was happy that the crisis had ended, he was worried that the Egyptian decision would boost Hamas's standing among the Palestinians. The official said the Egyptians succumbed to pressure from the Saudi monarch to reopen the Rafah terminal temporarily. Hamas confirmed that Saudi Arabia had played a major role in resolving the crisis. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh thanked the Saudi government "for ensuring the safe and dignified return of the pilgrims to their homes." He also thanked Mubarak for agreeing to reopen the Rafah border crossing. Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders expressed hope that the move would mark the beginning of the end of the international sanctions against the Hamas government that include the closure of the Rafah crossing. Haniyeh seized the opportunity to renew his call for solving the crisis between Hamas and Fatah. "We support a real dialogue to end the state of division in the Palestinian arena," he said shortly after welcoming the pilgrims back to the Gaza Strip. He urged both Fatah and Hamas to end their media attacks on each other and to release all prisoners belonging to the rival faction. Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of armed groups in the Gaza Strip, said the return of the pilgrims through Rafah was a "new victory for the Palestinian resistance and the resolve of the Palestinian people ion confronting the siege." Eyewitnesses said Hamas security officers arrested at least 15 men who were among the returning pilgrims. They said the men were all former Fatah policemen and activists who had fled to Egypt after Hamas took full control of the entire Gaza Strip in June. A source close to Hamas said some of the suspects were wanted for involvement in murder and corruption. Also Wednesday, six Palestinian terrorists were killed in a joint IDF land and air operation in the Gaza Strip. At least three of the gunmen were Hamas operatives. The others belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Two Kassam rockets struck the western Negev without causing any injuries. On Wednesday night, a leader of the Palestinian Resistance Committees was wounded but not killed in an air strike on Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip. Two bystanders were reportedly wounded.