JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel has threatened to restrict trade across its frontier with Gaza if the Palestinians fail to immediately address its security concerns at the newly reopened border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Saturday that Israel wouldn”t strangle the already impoverished Gaza economically, but that "the Palestinians need to take action."
The threat to further batter Gaza”s already shattered economy was made Friday at a meeting between Israeli officials and international mediators. The Associated Press obtained notes of the session.
The U.S., at a separate meeting, said the security problems were caused by technical glitches at the Rafah passage between Gaza and Egypt, and not by Palestinian failures.
In a deal wrested last month under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel agreed to the reopening of the Rafah crossing, which it closed before quitting Gaza in September.
The agreement also called for a bus link between the non-contiguous Gaza and the West Bank, and for increased cargo traffic by the end of the year at the Karni terminal on the Gaza-Israel frontier, which is Gaza”s main export outlet.
Israel said Friday it was freezing implementation of the entire agreement until its problems with the Rafah terminal, which reopened Nov. 26 under the supervision of European monitors, were resolved.
Israel has accused the Palestinians of violating the deal by not providing instant information on people crossing the border from Egypt into Gaza. As a result, up to 15 militants wanted by Israel, including the brother of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, were allowed in, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
"This crossing is wide open to terrorists and weapons, and jeopardizes Israel”s security," Mofaz told Israel Radio. He said he asked U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch in their meeting on Friday "to do everything in his power in his meetings with the Palestinians so the issue can be settled next week."
Welch is scheduled to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas later Saturday. U.S. officials told international mediators in a separate meeting on Friday that the Palestinians were complying with the Rafah agreement and that any delay in relaying information was the result of technological problems that American experts were trying to resolve, according to notes of that meeting, also obtained by the AP.
The chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli threat, saying the Palestinians were working to address all issues at Rafah as quickly as possible with the help of the European monitors.
"The Rafah terminal has been functioning for two weeks only, and anybody with a sane mind should not expect the border between Germany and France," he said, adding that the Europeans and not Israel should be the judges of Palestinian compliance with the agreement.
In other news Saturday, Abbas urged militant factions to extend their informal truce with Israel, known as "the calm," which is to expire at the end of the year.
The cease-fire, brokered in February, sharply reduced violence between Israel and the Palestinians. "We should move ahead with this calm until security and stability have been reached in the homeland, until our people feel no fear from the threat of tanks and aircraft,"Abbas said at a ceremony in Gaza City, where Palestinians laid the ground for a U.S.-funded courts complex.
On Friday, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said the militant group would not renew its truce with Israel because the Israelis had violated it.
The Palestinian Authority said Mashaal”s statement appeared to be an attempt to sabotage Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 25, in which Hamas is challenging Abbas” Fatah Party.
In other news, an Israeli naval boat patrolling the Gaza coast shot and killed one Palestinian in the waters near the Egyptian border, Palestinian officials said.
The army said two men were swimming over from Egypt with bags of weapons they were smuggling. When they refused to heed the military”s command to halt and Palestinians on shore opened fire on the boat, the Israelis shot at the men, the army said.
Palestinian medical officials identified the slain man as Nazen Farhat, 27. The second man was missing, the officials said.