GAZA, (Reuters) – European Union monitors withdrew from Gaza”s border with Egypt on Friday after Palestinian police imposed an armed blockade to protest the killing of a colleague in spiralling internal violence.
Already busy searching for three Britons abducted nearby on Wednesday, officials scrambled to defuse the standoff at the Rafah border crossing, whose opening last month was hailed as a step to make Gaza a testing ground for Palestinian statehood.
Unrest has been growing since Israel withdrew in September after 38 years of occupation. The power struggle among police, gangs and factions waging a 5-year-old uprising against Israel has also been stoked by a parliamentary election next month.
Witnesses said policemen, backed by gunmen from the dominant Palestinian faction Fatah, prevented vehicles from reaching the Rafah crossing. They fanned out in the terminal, forcibly ejecting would-be travellers.
"The gunmen and police are angry at the failure of the Palestinian Authority to stop armed chaos and to free their hands to fight lawlessness," said one traveller, who did not want to give his name.
The policemen had been incensed after a fellow officer died in a clash with a Rafah clan on Thursday, the witnesses said.
A spokesman for European Union security monitors stationed at the Rafah terminal said all personnel withdrew to Israel while the Palestinian Authority tried to end the blockade.
"Palestinian police advised us to leave," said the spokesman, Julio de la Guardia. "Rafah crossing is closed because the monitors left."
RAFAH OPENED UNDER RICE”S AUSPICES
Asked about the blockade, a senior Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity: "This is very disturbing. We will exert maximum efforts to reopen it immediately."
The crossing was opened last month under a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the hope of reviving the Gaza economy and efforts to end five years of fighting with Israel.
But the initial optimism dimmed with a resurgence of violence that shows little sign of abating. On Sunday, a "period of calm" declared by militants at the urging of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is set to expire.
A suicide bomber from the militant group Islamic Jihad killed an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, prompting Israeli vows of new army crackdowns.
The Palestinian Authority has failed so far to track down a British human rights activist abducted along with her visiting parents by gunmen in Rafah on Wednesday.
Palestinians accuse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of stoking unrest by expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where they seek statehood along with Gaza.
Sharon, favourite to win the general election on March 28, has pledged to keep major West Bank settlement blocs but hinted that isolated settlements could be removed under a peace accord.
The Israeli army said on Friday it had dismantled three West Bank outposts erected by Jewish settlers.
A spokeswoman for the settlers said the outposts — lean-to structures made of stone and wood — would be restored, and that at least 18 more remained untouched. An Israeli military source said there were no more than 10 remaining.