JERUSALEM (AP) – Palestinians have allowed up to 15 militants wanted by Israel to return to the Gaza Strip, violating a U.S.-wrested agreement that was to have let Israel monitor who enters the area from Egypt, Israel Radio reported Friday, citing Palestinian security officials.
The entry of the Hamas militants, including one of the group”s founders, through the border crossing at Rafah threatened to set off Israeli economic sanctions, which would further batter Gaza”s already shattered economy.
Palestinian officials say anyone with a Palestinian identity card can enter Gaza from Rafah.
Israel closed the Rafah passage, Gaza”s main gateway to the outside world, shortly before withdrawing from the strip in early September.
The crossing reopened last week after months of wrangling between Israel and the Palestinians over security procedures, and only after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applied heavy pressure to both sides to clinch a deal.
Israel was afraid that militants or arms would flow into Gaza through Rafah, but agreed to let the border reopen after the Palestinians accepted the presence of European monitors and installed security cameras that were to let Israel monitor the crossing live.
In recent days, Israel has complained that the information it is receiving has been delayed. On Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened that if Israel doesn”t receive real-time information, then it would expel Gaza from a customs agreement, in effect severing its crucial economic ties with Palestinians in the West Bank.
"If it turns out that we don”t have real-time monitoring of who is coming in, Israel has one tool, perhaps the most effective and the most painful, that the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel … will become (international) border crossings," and the customs arrangement will be rescinded, Sharon said.
Israel Radio said the militants had either been expelled from Palestinian territories by Israel, or fled, fearing Israeli retribution. Some left before the first Palestinian uprising against Israel broke out in 1987.
Their ranks included Hamas founder Ahmed el-Malah and Fadel Zahar, a brother of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, whom Israel expelled to Lebanon in 1991.
Sharon aides visited Cairo last week to ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to tighten oversight at the border, Israel Radio reported.
Egyptian officials were not immediately available for comment Friday. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv declined comment on the Rafah dispute.
In other news Friday, polls showed Sharon crushing his former Likud Party in March elections, sweeping 37 to 39 of parliament”s 120 seats, while Likud would sink as low as nine seats from its current 40. Sharon bolted Likud less than two weeks ago after concluding his energies would be sapped by rebels who opposed his Gaza Strip withdrawal and would try to block further territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Since then, polls show his new, centrist Kadima party steadily gaining and Likud steadily shrinking.
A TNS/Teleseker poll of 441 people for the Maariv newspaper showed Sharon taking 39 seats, up from 34 a week earlier, before Labor Party stalwart Shimon Peres announced he was moving over to the prime
minister”s camp. Likud would get 11 seats, down from 13 last week, and Labor, under its new leader, Amir Peretz, would capture 26 seats, down from 28.
The second poll of 500 people, conducted for the Haaretz daily by the Dialogue survey institute, gave Sharon 37 seats, Likud nine and Labor holding firm at 26. It was conducted before Peres quit Labor. No margin of error was given for either poll.
Also Friday, the Palestinians were holding primary elections in two major West Bank towns, Hebron and Tulkarem. The vote, the latest in a series of primaries ahead of January parliamentary elections, pitted old-timers from the ruling Fatah Party against young-guard candidates pushing for a greater role in decision making.
Polling in several West Bank districts has resulted in younger activists pushing aside corruption-tainted veterans. Fatah is holding its first primaries, in several rounds, and some have been marred by violence and disarray.
Earlier this week, results in the Gaza Strip were nullified after gunmen attacked polling stations.