- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

From combined dispatches

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian security forces began a series of raids in the Gaza Strip, seizing weapons and arresting suspects, a Palestinian security official said.

Security forces also closed three tunnels used to smuggle weapons and drugs across from Egypt, the official said. The crackdown began yesterday afternoon by order of the Palestinian leadership, the official said.

The closures, part of a drive by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to clamp down on militants, followed U.S. demands that he rein in such groups after a suicide bomb attack Tuesday on a Jerusalem bus. Such a campaign could help defuse growing tension, triggered by the bombing and the killing of a Hamas leader in an Israeli missile strike.

The violence threatens to sink a U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan that envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005.

“We have started a campaign of a number of security measures to restore law and order in the Gaza Strip,” Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan told Reuters news agency.

Palestinian police so far have shut down three tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt to Palestinian militants in the forefront of the 35-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation and arrested several suspects, officials said.

Residents in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah reported seeing a flurry of police activity at houses believed to be hiding entrances to the tunnels, which snake their way under the Israeli-controlled border and into Egyptian territory.

The tunnels were closed with sand, rocks and cement. Security forces also detained several people involved in trading weapons, the officials said.

The security officials would not say how many people were taken into custody. In one incident, police were stoned by the relatives of a detainee, witnesses said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir said the action yesterday was not enough, and Israel expects Mr. Dahlan to arrest those involved in violence against Israel.

“We expect Dahlan to take his 20,000 troops and to start making arrests of the terrorists,” he said. “We don’t need any more words.”

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said the closure of the tunnels reflects the Palestinian Authority’s determination to enforce the law.

“The obstacle to this [crackdown] now is the Israeli policy of incursions, assassinations, building walls and noncompliance with the road map,” he said.

An Israeli security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Dahlan has promised to take action against weapons smugglers.

Mr. Dahlan also has ordered forces to prevent the firing of homemade rockets from Gaza at Israel, the Israeli official said. Such rocket fire in recent days prompted Israel to send tanks to the edges of Gaza, signaling that it might retake parts of the strip if the shelling continues.

“We received messages from the Palestinians, through the Americans, that Dahlan promises to act tonight against the tunnels,” the official told the Associated Press. “This week, he will take control of Hamas and Islamic Jihad installations in Gaza and will confiscate their weapons.”

On the political front, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction approved the appointment of Nasser Yousef as interior minister with wide powers over security issues.

Mr. Abbas has yet to approve the appointment of Mr. Yousef, who is considered close to Mr. Arafat and could compete with Mr. Dahlan, an Abbas ally, for power in the security sector.

Meanwhile the death toll from Hamas’ suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus Tuesday rose to 21 as a 70-year-old Israeli woman died of her injuries. The attack prompted Israel to kill a Hamas leader, and Islamic militants in turn threatened a wave of new attacks.

Palestinian leaders appealed for international intervention, urging the United States and other countries to help broker a truce following a week of violence.

“We’ve reached a point where the situation is in urgent need of foreign intervention so that we can return to the political track,” Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said after a Cabinet meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

A temporary cease-fire declared by militant groups two months ago dissolved following Israel’s killing of the Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab. Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat met yesterday with U.S. envoy John Wolf and urged the United States to pressure Israel to halt killings of militants.

On Friday, the United States froze the assets of six Hamas leaders and five European-based organizations that it said raise money for the group. Five Americans were among those killed in the Hamas bombing.

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