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Hamas militants storm border after PM barred

Hamas militants, angry that Israel was preventing Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh from returning to Gaza, burst into the Rafah border terminal Thursday, sparking a gunbattle with guards before taking control of the crossing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hamas gunmen seized control of the Gaza Strip’s border crossing with Egypt on Thursday in a ferocious gunbattle with Fatah-allied border guards after Israel blocked the Hamas prime minister from crossing with tens of millions of dollars in aid.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was eventually allowed to cross without the estimated $35 million cash, but on the Gaza side of the border his convoy came under intense fire from Fatah gunmen, and one of his bodyguards was killed. Hamas said the gunmen had been aiming to kill the prime minister.

“The bodyguard to Ismail Haniyeh was killed during an assassination attempt,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

More than two dozen people were wounded in the fighting, deepening factional violence that has pushed the rivals closer to civil war. One of the injured was Haniyeh’s 27-year-old son, Abed.

Haniyeh cut short a trip abroad and was trying to return to Gaza in a bid to quell the infighting between Hamas and Fatah. He was carrying the cash for his government, which has been bankrupted by international sanctions to punish Hamas for refusing to renounce its violent, anti-Israel ideology. Other government officials before Haniyeh have carried in millions of dollars of cash in suitcases across the same border point.

Israeli officials said from the beginning that Haniyeh could cross into Gaza without the money. Egyptian mediators stepped in to help resolve the standoff, and Haniyeh finally was allowed to cross into Gaza late Thursday. But Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for European border monitors at the crossing, said Haniyeh left the funds, estimated at $35 million, in Egypt.

Bodyguard slain
After he crossed, there was a new burst of gunfire and Haniyeh’s convoy was forced to speed away. A 24-year-old bodyguard for Haniyeh was shot in the head and killed. Officials said Haniyeh was unharmed but his son was shot and slightly injured in the exchange.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed regret for the shooting of the bodyguard, according to the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

Haniyeh left the crossing for his home near Gaza City. Arriving home around midnight, the prime minister was furious over the gunfire at his convoy. He blamed Israel for the delay at the border but added: “We know the party that shot directly at our cars, injuring some of the people with me ... and we also know how to deal with this.”

About 50 gunmen greeted Haniyeh at his home in a refugee camp next to Gaza City, firing in the air and throwing candies.

Earlier Thursday, pro-Fatah Palestinian officers arrested a Hamas-linked militant in the killing of the three young sons of a Fatah security chief. The militant’s allies retaliated by kidnapping a security officer.

Thursday’s gunbattle at the border erupted after Hamas militants, angry that Israel was preventing Haniyeh from returning, stormed the Rafah terminal, which is controlled by the pro-Fatah Presidential Guard under the watch of European monitors.

The Presidential Guard opened fire, setting off a gunfight. Terrified travelers ran for cover, some carrying their luggage. Crying women and children hid behind walls and taxis, while the European monitors who police the crossing fled. Two Hamas militants were among those wounded.

The Hamas militants, chanting “God is Great, let’s liberate this place” took over the arrival hall, and border guards escorted the European monitors to safety. Two loud explosions rocked the area, and security officials said militants had blown a hole in the border fence about a half mile from the terminal.

27 wounded
The rampage destroyed furniture and computer equipment inside the terminal and plunged the area into darkness. Hospital officials said at least 27 people were wounded, two seriously.

With the terminal closed, Haniyeh was stranded on the Egyptian side of the border for several hours. Late Thursday, the Presidential Guard regained control of the terminal and the European monitors moved back in.

At a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, foreign policy chief Javier Solana condemned the move by Hamas to seize the EU-monitored border crossing.

Thursday’s unrest was likely to strain the U.S.-brokered deal that turned over control of the crossing to the Palestinians last year after four decades of Israeli control. The border can only operate in the presence of European monitors.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, working with the EU monitors, had ordered the border closed to prevent Haniyeh from bringing in the funds he raised during a tour of Muslim countries, security officials said.

A senior Israeli security official said they were not trying to block Haniyeh’s entry, only to keep out the money. The official said Israel had information the money would be used to strengthen Hamas or fund terror attacks, but he declined to provide further details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

Haniyeh left Gaza on Nov. 28 for what was supposed to be a monthlong trip to the Muslim world, with the goal of raising money for his government.

Sanctions hobble Palestinians
The Palestinian Authority has been crippled by international economic sanctions that have left it unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 workers. Israel and Western donor nations cut off hundreds of millions of dollars for the government after Hamas won legislative elections early this year, demanding the militant group renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Hamas officials have brought in more than $50 million to Gaza this year — far short of the government’s needs.

Abbas, of Fatah, has been trying to persuade Hamas to join his more moderate party in a coalition government in hopes of lifting the sanctions. But talks between the sides broke down late last month.

Tensions heightened after Abbas threatened to call new elections, drawing charges from Hamas that he is plotting a coup. Abbas is scheduled to deliver a speech outlining his plan on Saturday.