Israel looks to cut Gaza links

ISRAEL wants to cut its links with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip after militants blasted open the territory's border with Egypt in defiance of an Israeli blockade.

Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defence minister, said yesterday that Israel wanted to wash its hands of Gaza altogether by handing over supply of electricity, water and medicine to others. An Israeli security official said Egypt should take over responsibility.

"We need to understand that when Gaza is open to the other side (Egypt], we lose responsibility for it. So we want to disconnect from it," Mr Vilnai told Army Radio.

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Yesterday Egyptian border guards steered huge crowds of Palestinians as they continued to stream from Gaza to Egypt.

Egyptian officials said the border would eventually "return to normal," and Egyptian police prevented Gazans from moving deeper into Egypt.

Gazans had hoped the temporary border opening would become permanent.

Israel has said since the 2005 pull-out that it should not be considered an occupying power in Gaza. But it has maintained control of Gaza's northern and eastern border crossings and its airspace and coastal waters.

The blockade Israel has imposed on the Strip since the Hamas takeover became almost complete a week ago after rocket attacks against southern Israel.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said Mr Vilnai's statement was more than his own personal views. "This reflects the (Israeli] government's wishful thinking" he said.

He said severing all Israel's links would depend on Egyptian readiness to leave the border open and "would take a long time even if Egypt was willing to take Gaza off Israel's hands."

Egyptian officials angrily dismissed Mr Vilnai's proposal. "This is a wrong assumption," said Hossam Zaki, the spokesman for Egypt's foreign ministry. "The current situation is only an exception and for temporary reasons. The border will eventually go back to normal."

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Hamas has used the breach – carefully planned, with militants weakening the metal wall with blow torches about a month ago – to push its demand for reopening the border passages, this time with Hamas involvement. Such an arrangement would in effect end the international sanctions against the Islamic militants.

Taher Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman, suggested yesterday that Hamas would seek a future role on the Gaza-Egypt border. "An open border like this has no logic," he said. "We are studying the mechanism of having an official crossing point."

However, it's not clear whether Egypt will acquiesce. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has been under intense public pressure at home to alleviate the suffering of Gazans under blockade. However, Egypt would likely be reluctant to have an open border with a territory ruled by Islamic militants.

Mr Vilnai's proposal goes against a cardinal principle that has underpinned past Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, namely that the West Bank and Gaza be treated as one territorial unit. The de facto division between the territories was accentuated when Hamas took over the Strip in June, with the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, forming a new government responsible for the West Bank.

Jamil Majdalawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Gaza City, said Mr Vilnai's proposal aimed at "making permanent the division between the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

"This destroys the unity of the Palestinian people," he said.

The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, said in an interview yesterday that Israel was still considering a large-scale military operation to counter rockets from Gaza.

"Probably we will find ourselves there. We are not rushing to reconquer Gaza but will not remove any option from the table when it comes to our citizens' security," he said.


GAZANS say they want their new-found freedom to continue.

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"For God's sake, why don't (the Egyptians] keep allowing us to pass through?" Mohammed Abu Amra, a Palestinian crossing the border on crutches, said. "Everyone is rushing into Egypt before they seal it off."

In the past two days, Gazans in Egypt have stocked up on the likes of cigarettes, cement and fuel. In response, Israel stopped emergency shipments of diesel fuel, arguing Gazans could get supplies from Egypt.

Cross-border cargo shipments have picked up, using the back-to-back system. Trucks and donkey carts pull up to the Egyptian side and the goods are unloaded and carried across to Gaza, to be put on waiting trucks.

"We just want freedom," said Adel Tildani as he crossed to Egypt. "I don't need to buy anything. Freedom is more important."

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