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Israel threatens harsh reaction to post-withdrawal attack

Sunday, September 11, 2005

JERUSALEM -- Israel threatened Saturday to deliver an unprecedentedly harsh response to any attacks from Gaza after Israeli troops quit the territory next week and hand it over to the Palestinians.

Egypt, meanwhile, deployed the first of 750 soldiers assigned to police the volatile Gaza border to prevent arms smuggling and illicit crossings after the Israelis end their 38-year occupation.

"An hour after we leave the field, there will be a strategic change ... in the nature of our response to even an attempt at terror," Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the military's chief of operations, told Israel Radio. "We shall have a far more extreme reaction to any attempt."

While Israel has in the past used airstrikes and tank assaults against militants, it declared a policy of relative restraint after a February cease-fire.

The last Israeli soldiers will leave Gaza on Monday, or a day later if the Israeli Cabinet decides to raze more than two dozen synagogues still standing in demolished settlements. The Cabinet is to vote on the emotionally charged matter today.

'Rampant lawlessness'

Already rampant lawlessness in Gaza is expected to intensify after the pullout as Palestinian factions fight for control of the area.

In the latest sign of chaos, masked gunmen abducted Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi of the Corriere della Sera daily in the Gaza town of Deir El-Balah, but released him unharmed about four hours later, Palestinian officials said.

Palestinian security officials said the kidnappers were among the 60 armed Palestinians who earlier in the day occupied the local governor's headquarters and Interior Ministry offices in the town, demanding jobs with the Palestinian Authority. They took Cremonesi in an attempt to bolster their claims, the officials said.

In Gaza City, three gunmen opened fire from their car at the Interior Ministry press office, touching off a brief gunbattle with the building's guards. No one was injured and the gunmen escaped, the ministry said in a statement.

"There are many elements and many parties who are interested in preserving the chaos, because they cannot live under law and order," ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said in the statement.

On Saturday, 200 Egyptian guards took up position along the volatile Gaza border in line with the Israeli withdrawal. Another 550 soldiers are to be assigned there during the coming week, an Egyptian official said.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is expected in Gaza on Sunday to try to complete a deal between Israel and the Palestinians on the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which Israel shut down temporarily earlier this week to the Palestinians' dismay.

The crossing is the Palestinians' main gateway to the outside world, and the Palestinians have voiced fears that its closure -- in addition to existing restrictions on entry to Israel and the lack of a harbor or airport -- would lock up Gaza's 1.4 million residents in the coastal strip.

Israel has agreed in principle to Suleiman's proposal to deploy foreign inspectors at the crossing when it reopens, after refurbishing, for passenger traffic but says a final deal depends on how effectively the Palestinians curb militants.

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel has no intention of trapping Palestinians in Gaza.

"We are not making Gaza into a prison, people will be able to leave Gaza and enter Gaza, and within Gaza the roads will be open," Peres told Israel Radio. "Obviously, in all these cases we shall attend to Israel's security needs."

In an interview published in a Palestinian newspaper Saturday, international Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn said the Israelis had agreed to Suleiman's Rafah plan, which is to be implemented within six months, but Palestinians want the crossing reopened sooner.

"Some Palestinians are wondering why it shouldn't be three months, or maybe one month or one week," Wolfensohn told the Al Quds daily. "They are forgetting that Rafah being in Palestinian and Egyptian hands, without an Israeli presence, is something they should be proud of as a major achievement."

Wolfensohn said Palestinians initially would travel between Gaza and the noncontiguous West Bank through Israel in escorted road convoys. No decisions have been made on a permanent travel solution, he said, but a rail link is an option.


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