- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hundreds of Palestinians streamed into Egypt yesterday after militants with stolen bulldozers broke through a border wall in the most brazen challenge to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ authority.

Thousands of Egyptian Interior Ministry troops swarmed the border, firing tear gas and shooting into the air. An Egyptian armored vehicle was set ablaze, and a witness said three Palestinians were injured — one seriously, when a troop carrier crushed him against a wall.

Police imposed a curfew on the Egyptian side, all shops were closed, and authorities cut electricity, plunging the scene in near total darkness. Hundreds of Palestinians hid in nearby farmland.

The militants’ rampage through the southern Gaza town of Rafah underscored the growing lawlessness in Palestinian towns, especially in Gaza. Mr. Abbas, who has condemned the chaos, has been unable to impose order, and his failure to keep the gunmen in check is expected to harm Fatah’s prospects in Jan. 25 parliament elections.

The rampage began late Tuesday, after Palestinian intelligence arrested Alaa al-Hams, a militant with the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, on suspicion that he and his followers kidnapped human rights activist Kate Burton and her parents for two days last week. The Burtons were among 19 foreigners abducted by Fatah gunmen in Gaza in recent months. All have been freed unharmed.

Al-Hams’ followers fired at the Palestinian security headquarters in Rafah, where he was held, briefly took over four government buildings and then drove to the Rafah crossing, which was reopened last month after intense negotiations directed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Firing in the air, they closed the entrance gate and told waiting passengers to leave. They set up an impromptu checkpoint, turning away travelers, but left the buildings and the crossing after three hours.

The militants then stole two bulldozers in Rafah and led an impromptu parade of hundreds of jubilant residents toward a massive wall a few hundred yards from the border. Five militants rode in the shovel of one bulldozer, while children held onto the back of the vehicle.

“We are going to do everything we can to pressure the [Palestinian] Authority to release our leader,” said an Al Aqsa activist who gave his name as Abu Hassan.

The bulldozers smashed two holes in the towering concrete barrier at the spot where Hamas militants had blasted through it during the border chaos that followed the completion of Israel’s Gaza pullout in September.

Palestinian security officials had closed the earlier hole with a patch of heavy concrete blocks, but those quickly gave way before the bulldozer yesterday.

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