GAZA (Reuters) – Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip on Friday but said it would try to bolster new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after militants, defying his call for non-violence, killed six Israelis at a border cargo terminal.
Three Palestinian gunmen were also killed in the bombing and shooting attack late on Thursday at the Karni crossing point, a commercial lifeline for Gaza.
Abbas, due to be sworn in as president on Saturday, condemned the assault and deadly raids Israel has mounted against militants.
Three militant groups said they jointly took part in the operation: Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of Abbas’s Fatah (news – web sites) movement.
Israel signaled it would weigh its response carefully to avoid weakening Abbas, a leader it has said it could do business with after shunning his predecessor Yasser Arafat (news – web sites) for years.
But Israel shut down Karni and the Erez border crossing to the north, effectively sealing off the Gaza Strip following the closure of the Rafah terminal on the Egyptian frontier last month after a bombing there killed five Israeli soldiers.
“We must try to strengthen (Abbas) as a leader, assuming that at some time or other he will be able take control of the terror organizations,” Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said.
Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai said Abbas’s election and Israel’s plans to remove all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank later this year presented a historic opportunity for peace.
“Arafat has left us at last. Abu Mazen speaks a different language,” Vilnai said.
Elected by a landslide last Sunday to replace Arafat, who died on Nov. 11, Abbas has urged a cease-fire in four years of bloodshed to allow resumption of talks with Israel on peace and Palestinian statehood.
The call has been rejected by militants he has said he wants to co-opt rather than confront.
ABBAS CONDEMNS KARNI ATTACK, ISRAELI RAIDS
“These attacks (at Karni) and what Israel did last week by killing nine Palestinians do not benefit peace,” Abbas told reporters in his first reaction to Thursday’s violence.
In Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, several thousand people, some carrying green Islamic flags, turned out for what they called a victory march to celebrate the Karni assault.
The march, along the camp’s main street, was organized by militant groups in a sign of grassroots support for their defiance of Abbas and battle against Israel as it prepares for its planned pullout from Gaza.
“We will continue to chase you and disrupt your sleep until you leave the land you occupied,” the militant movements said in a statement. “(The attack) affirms the consensus of the resistance factions on the choice of jihad (holy struggle).”
In what he called an attempt “to impose order in the Palestinian street,” Major-General Abdel-Razek al-Majaydeh, public security chief in the Palestinian Authority (news – web sites), announced the formation of a Joint Security Force.
He said the 750-member contingent, comprising officers from all of the Palestinian security services, would be deployed soon to “end chaotic marches, chaos of arms, armed assaults and the use of weapons to carry out criminal crimes.”
But he said the force would not act against Palestinians engaged in what he termed resistance against Israel.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah)