Tuesday, August 26, 2003

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Palestinians said they will not close arms-smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border until Israel halts assassinations of Islamic militants, even as Israel targeted yet another Hamas member yesterday.

“The assassinations are big obstacle. The Palestinian Authority cannot perform its obligations while the Israelis are killing, shooting and bombarding,” said a Rafah security official. “Israel is not giving the Palestinian Authority enough chance to implement the law here.”

Yesterday an Israeli helicopter fired three missiles at the car of a Hamas fugitive in Gaza City, killing a 65-year old bystander and wounding two dozen others.

Three Hamas members managed to flee their car on a crowded Gaza City street before the missiles hit, the Associated Press reported witnesses saying. Five children were among the wounded, doctors said.

Israel has killed seven militants in two missile raids in Gaza and stepped up military operations in the West Bank since 21 persons died in a Hamas suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus last week.

Just minutes before the helicopter raid, an Israeli gunboat reportedly fired two shells toward northern Gaza City, hitting an empty plot of land. Hours before the missile strike, Israeli soldiers dressed as Arabs snatched two wounded militants, one reportedly involved in a suicide bombing, from their beds in a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus.

The assassinations, successful and attempted, have outraged Palestinians and undermined support for a crackdown on Islamic militants by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. But Israel has said that as long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t act to rein in terrorists, it will do the job itself.

When Israel pulled back its forces in Gaza as part of the start of the “road map” peace plan in June, destroying the tunnels became a central demand of the Israeli security forces.

Israel has been trying to uncover the subterranean tunnels because they supply weapons to Palestinian terror groups. The army is even constructing an underground barrier along the border aimed at blocking the tunnels.

Over the weekend, the Palestinian police sealed up six tunnels with concrete. The move was dismissed by Israeli officials as a public-relations stunt, but an Israeli security official said the action was one of the first achievements of the Palestinian Authority in the war on terror.

“It’s a positive step, but it’s the first step on a very long road to undermining the terrorist infrastructure. It’s not getting at the core of the issue but it’s of some value,” the Israeli security official said.

The tunnel wars in Rafah have been particularly punishing for local residents. Israel has bulldozed homes used by militants to fire at guard posts along the border. Agricultural fields have also been destroyed.

“Where are the 1,100 houses a threat to Israel? Were there tunnels under all these houses? What about the bulldozing of agricultural lands?” said Yousef Aisa Abu Khaled, an officer in the Palestinian Preventive Security force in Gaza City. “All this prevents reaching an agreement or taking action against Hamas.”

The Rafah tunnels have been used by smugglers ever since Israel fenced its border with Egypt in 1982, following its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. The channels run almost 50 feet deep and are a quarter-mile long. The payloads, which include drugs, cigarettes and agricultural seeds, move along railroad tracks.

A new tunnel can be built in three to four months, making it unlikely the weapons trade will be cut off by Sunday’s Palestinian operation.

The Rafah security official said residents support closing the tunnels because they blame smugglers, in part, for turning their neighborhood into a war zone.

In Rafah’s Hay as-Salam neighborhood, bullet holes dot the walls of Fathma Abdeen’s house. “We don’t care what they close or what they don’t close. We want peace,” said Mrs. Abdeen, 40.

But other Rafah residents say the Palestinian Authority is undercutting its popularity by closing the tunnels. A member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, who called himself Abu Ashraf, complained the price of bullets has jumped to $3 apiece because there are fewer conduits now.

“We’re bringing the weapons in to defend ourselves, because no one else is helping us,” he said. “The intifada should go back to what it used to be. The Palestinian Authority should let its hands off the people.”

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