- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel yesterday held up Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh for eight hours at the border to the Gaza Strip until he relinquished $35 million in cash he was carrying after a two-week trip to Iran and other Muslim countries.

The test of wills at the Rafah border crossing came amid escalating violence between Mr. Haniyeh’s ruling Hamas party and the Fatah party of moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas gunmen seized control of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in a ferocious gunbattle with Fatah-allied border guards. Later, Mr. Haniyeh’s convoy came under intense fire from Fatah militants, and one of his bodyguards was killed. Hamas said the gunmen had been trying to kill the prime minister.

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 Mr. Haniyeh’s 27-year-old son, Abed, the Associated Press reported.

The gunbattle erupted after Hamas militants, angry that Israel was preventing Mr. 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, while the European monitors who police the crossing fled.

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.

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

Acting on an intelligence tip, Israeli officials closed the border in the belief that Mr. Haniyeh was carrying funds that could end up in the hands of the military wing of Hamas. Palestinian and Western sources said the prime minister was forced to leave $35 million in cash in suitcases on the Egyptian side of the border before being allowed back in.

With international banks honoring an embargo on money transfers to the Palestinian government, Hamas officials have regularly carried large amounts of cash donated by friendly Middle East governments into Gaza to keep the government afloat.

In Iran, Mr. Haniyeh got a $250 million pledge from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and declared that Iran represented the “strategic depth” of the Palestinians. The alliance has raised concern in Israel that Iran is setting up a protege government and military affiliates just a few miles from Israeli cities.

“The Israeli security agencies are really disturbed by the links of Hamas to Iran,” said a senior security official. “They train, they fund many of the hostile elements in the Middle East. This is something that should be taken very seriously in terms of counterterrorism.”

Western countries and centrist Arab regimes don’t want Hamas to have access to the money out of fear it will be used to strengthen the military wing of the Islamic party at the expense of Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Haniyeh’s meeting with the Iranian president and Tehran’s aid pledge help Hamas demonstrate to Palestinians that they do not need to rely on the United States, Europe and Japan for financial support, analysts said.

Among ordinary Palestinians, the trip, which included stops in Syria, Qatar and Sudan, has shown Mr. Haniyeh as a leader capable of securing financial aid for the hard-pressed Palestinian Authority.

Talks between Hamas and Fatah on establishing a unity government have faltered in recent weeks. Even though the Hamas-led government is suffering from an international aid boycott, Mr. Haniyeh’s fundraising trip shows Palestinians that the Islamic militants can take the lead on foreign policy.

Mr. Abbas is scheduled to deliver a major speech tomorrow in which he is expected to discuss whether he will dismiss the government and order new parliamentary elections.

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