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Disgruntled Palestinian Police Overrun Gaza Border Facility

Times Staff Writer

In a sign of escalating chaos in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian police officers furious over the slaying of a colleague stormed the Palestinian-administered border crossing into Egypt on Friday, firing guns into the air and forcing European monitors to flee their posts.

The confrontation, which sent Palestinian travelers scrambling for safety, came scarcely a month after Palestinian officials assumed control of the Rafah border crossing under an agreement personally brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The gunmen quickly dispersed after the early-morning clash, and the frontier reopened about six hours later. But Israeli officials said the incident raised concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s fitness to administer an international frontier -- the first over which it has assumed control.

At the time, the deal clinched by Rice during a visit to the region was hailed as an important foreign-policy achievement for the Bush administration, as well as a key test of Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza. Israel withdrew troops and Jewish settlers from the seaside territory over the summer after nearly four decades of occupation.

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The brief seizure of the crossing was the latest episode in a feud between members of the Palestinian security forces and a prominent Palestinian clan in Rafah. A policeman was killed in an armed clash Thursday between the two sides in the center of Rafah, and on Friday afternoon, gunfire broke out near the same spot, killing a bystander -- a 14-year-old Palestinian boy.

The fighting was a prime example of the factionalism and gang warfare that beset the crowded and impoverished territory of 1.3 million people. In Gaza, loyalty to extended family and political factions nearly always takes precedence over any allegiance to the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

The southern tip of Gaza, where the Rafah crossing is located, has been particularly lawless. For years, clan-based criminal gangs have made a lucrative trade of smuggling weapons and ammunition through tunnels under the Gazan-Egyptian border.

The continuing unrest in Gaza represents a dangerous display of weakness on the part of the Palestinian Authority, which next month will face off against the militant group Hamas in parliamentary elections. Hamas has made a strong showing in municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza, and is expected to pick up a considerable number of seats in the Jan. 25 balloting.

The Gaza chaos “has ramifications and implications for the whole peace process,” said Raanan Gissin, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“If the Palestinian Authority cannot impose law and order in the most basic manner that is required to have a functioning civil society, how do they expect to establish a Palestinian state living peacefully side by side with Israel?” Gissin said.

Palestinians say the upheaval has been aggravated by harsh Israeli measures, including the establishment Wednesday of a “no-go” zone in northern Gaza.

Israel set up the buffer zone encompassing several abandoned Jewish settlements and pounded the area with artillery fire in an effort to choke off rocket attacks aimed at Israeli towns near Gaza.

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Palestinian officials vowed to take steps to halt the spiraling violence in Gaza. “All those acting outside the law will face the consequences,” said Brig. Gen. Alaa Hosni, the police chief in the territory.

The European border monitors, whose presence Israel reluctantly agreed to, said they had no choice but to abandon their posts when shooting broke out at the Rafah crossing, pointing out that they have no mandate to intercede in such confrontations.

“We returned to the border crossing as soon as our evaluation showed the situation was stable once more,” a spokesman for the observers, Julio de la Guardia, told reporters.

In another development, armed men who abducted a young British human rights activist and her parents in southern Gaza on Wednesday morning freed the three unharmed late Friday, British and Palestinian officials said.

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Kidnappings of foreigners have become commonplace in recent months, usually carried out by gunmen seeking jobs in the Palestinian security forces. But the abductees are almost always freed after a few hours, and this case stirred concern when it dragged on for nearly three days.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Mujahedin Brigades claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying it had seized Kate Burton, 25, and her parents, Hugh and Helen Burton, to press demands that included abolishing the Israeli-enforced buffer zone in northern Gaza.

The group also threatened to abduct international election observers if its demands were not met -- suggesting that its principal goal might be to disrupt next month’s Palestinian vote.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility Friday for a suicide bombing a day earlier that killed an Israeli army lieutenant and two Palestinians at a military checkpoint.

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Mosque loudspeakers in the village of Atil, outside the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm, identified the bomber as Suheib Ibrahim Yassin, a 19-year-old member of Islamic Jihad. Israeli officials said Yassin had intended to attack a Hanukkah holiday gathering but set off his explosives when he realized he could not cross into Israel.

Times special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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