JERUSALEM – Up to 15 Palestinian militants wanted by Israel have returned to the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said Friday, complaining that the Palestinian Authority had not fulfilled its obligation since taking control of the border with Egypt last week.
The Palestinians said they did not violate a U.S.-brokered deal for operating the Rafah terminal, and that the fugitives had the right to return. European monitors at Rafah said they were trying to settle the dispute to protect the border agreement, the biggest diplomatic achievement since Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza last summer.
The flare-up over Rafah came as Israelis and Palestinians entered heated election campaigns that also give hope to renewed peacemaking.
Israeli Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit, an ally of Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon, said in an interview published Friday that Israel would eventually have to pull out of most of the
West Bank and allow the Palestinians to establish a state. In the meantime, “not a single additional house” should be built in West Bank settlements, Sheetrit told The Jerusalem Post.
Sheetrit was the second Sharon ally to hint at large-scale territorial concessions if Sharon is elected to a third term March 28. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said this week that Israel’s separation barrier, which carves off 8 percent of the West Bank, could help determine a future border.
Sharon, who left Likud late last month and created a centrist party, has said only that Israel will keep large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, most of which are on the “Israeli” side of the barrier, and that he rules out additional unilateral withdrawals.
Shortly before pulling out of Gaza, Israel closed the Rafah passage, Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. The crossing reopened last week after months of wrangling between Israel and the Palestinians over security procedures. Israel feared militants or arms would flow into Gaza through Rafah.
Under the accord, Israel can raise objections with the European monitors at Rafah, but the Palestinians have the final say on who gets in and out of Gaza.
Israel monitors the crossing via cameras, but has complained that the Palestinians have not met a key element of the deal — providing immediate passport information as the travelers cross. That information has reached Israel with a delay of several minutes, meaning fugitives will already have crossed by the time Israel can raise objections.
European officials said the delay was a technical problem that should be fixed within a few days.
Palestinian security officials acknowledged Friday that at least 10 wanted men have entered the coastal area, but said anyone with a Palestinian identity card can enter. Israel’s demand that such fugitives be kept out are not part of the accord, the officials said.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said the Palestinians have allowed “between 10 and 15” wanted militants into Gaza.
One of those to enter Gaza this week was Fadel Zahar, an activist with the militant group Hamas and brother of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar.
Fadel Zahar said he was exercising his right to return after years of exile in Lebanon, Sudan and
“I am a resident of Gaza. My family lives here. I spent all my life here, but I was deported for political reasons in 1991,” he said by telephone. “I am a member of Hamas. I am not a leader of Hamas. I am proud of this membership.”
Even though Israel has no formal veto, the parties to the border agreement are now drawing up a list of people who will not be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip, said Julio De La Guardia, a spokesman for the European contingent.
“There are some people who shouldn’t be allowed to cross,” he said, adding that the entry of fugitives was a cause for concern, but not a violation of the agreement.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib said that Israel and the United States could propose names of those who should be banned, but that the Palestinians have the final say.
Earlier this week, Sharon warned that if controls at Rafah weren’t tightened, Israel would turn its crossings with Gaza into international border passages, a move that would sever a customs union with the Palestinian areas and cost the Palestinians millions of dollars.
Also Friday, Palestinian officials with the ruling
Fatah party called off primary voting in Salfit and Qalqiliya, two West Bank towns, after gunmen fired into the air and burned ballot boxes.
Violence and confusion have plagued Fatah’s staggered primary voting in recent weeks, leaving the party in disarray as it gears up for a stiff challenge from Hamas in an election scheduled for January.