GAZA (Reuters) – Israel blocked Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh from returning to Gaza on Thursday after a visit abroad to prevent him bringing in money donated by Iran.
An official source at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza said Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, was carrying $35 million in suitcases.
The Israeli move ratcheted up tensions in the Gaza Strip where a showdown between the governing Hamas group and the rival Fatah movement has boiled over into a series of killings.
Israeli security sources said Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the closure of the Rafah crossing to stop Haniyeh returning to the coastal Palestinian territory after a two-week fund-raising tour.
“He is suspected of planning to bring in millions of dollars donated by Iran,” one source said.
Over the past two weeks Haniyeh has visited countries including Qatar, Iran and Sudan to raise money for his government which has struggled to function due to international sanctions imposed after Hamas’s election win in January.
Some 2,000 Hamas supporters, including gunmen firing in the air, stormed into the Rafah border terminal after Israel ordered it shut, witnesses said.
Other gunmen used explosives to blow a gap in the concrete wall dividing Gaza and Egypt.
Palestinian sources said negotiations were under way to allow Haniyeh in without the money.
A spokeswoman for the European Border Assistance Mission, which monitors Rafah crossing, said she doubted he would be able to cross on Thursday. “The border has been closed for today and our people have been evacuated,” she said.
Israel, the United States and the European Union regard Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, as a terrorist organization and imposed sanctions after the Islamist group rejected their demands to recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace accords.
Since those sanctions were imposed, Hamas officials have managed to bring about $80 million in cash into Gaza via Rafah, according to European diplomats. Over the past two weeks, Haniyeh has received pledges of up to $350 million.
Palestinian militants and Israel have been holding to a tentative ceasefire in the Gaza Strip since late November.
Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas legislator, said Israel’s closure of Rafah “could lead the region to an explosion and the Zionist enemy and its allies will bear the responsibility for the consequences.”
Earlier, officers from the General Intelligence unit, a force allied to President Mahmoud Abbas, arrested Hisham Mukhaimar, a member of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), following a gun battle at his home in Gaza City, witnesses said.
The PRC then kidnapped a security officer in retaliation.
A Palestinian security source said Mukhaimar’s arrest was linked to a probe into the killing on Monday of three young brothers whose father is an intelligence official loyal to Abbas.
Fatah has blamed Hamas for the deaths of the three boys, all aged under 10, who were shot as they were being dropped off at school. Hamas denies involvement.