GAZA,(Reuters) – Special forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas assumed control of the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt on Tuesday in a move certain to heighten tensions with Islamic militant group Hamas.
Abbas had been under international and Israeli pressure to take control of the Palestinian-run border away from the Hamas-led interior ministry after the group’s crushing electoral win against the long-dominant Fatah party in January.
The move, welcomed by European monitors stationed at the frontier, could help quell concerns that Hamas might exploit its role in controlling forces at the border to smuggle in weapons.
About 150 black-clad presidential guards, armed with assault rifles and loyal to Abbas, rolled into Rafah in a 25-vehicle convoy and took over operations from security forces employed by the interior ministry.
European Union monitors working at the Rafah border under a U.S.-brokered deal to assuage Israeli fears that foreign fighters and weapons could reach Gaza, said they were happy to see forces at the border who answered directly to Abbas.
“It fits within the guidelines that the European Union is not going to deal politically with the Hamas-led government,” said Julio De La Guardia, a spokesman for the 65-strong group of monitors.
Witnesses said the handover was peaceful, with interior ministry forces leaving the terminal calmly. Fatah members make up the backbone of the departing forces and have remained loyal to Fatah since Hamas assumed control of the ministry.
Analysts say taking control of the crossing may spark political discord with Hamas, which has largely abided by a truce with Israel for over a year but remains sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction.
Fatah seeks a negotiated two-state deal to end the conflict with Israel, with the objective of creating a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
Hamas has said the move by Abbas is a bid to water down the power of the Hamas-led government and violates power-sharing understandings reached with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh whereby control of borders would remain in government hands, not the hands of the presidency.
“It contributes to attempts to deprive the government of some of its authority,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. “We hope the decision will be reconsidered.”
Citing security concerns and threats of attack, Israel has repeatedly closed the Karni commercial crossing into Gaza — a lifeline for Palestinians in the impoverished strip from which Israel withdrew last year after 38 years of occupation.
Israel continues to control major crossings in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.