Abbas takes control of crossing in Gaza as tensions with Hamas rise

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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, is planning to take direct control of at least one key crossing into Gaza as part of a move triggering tensions with the Hamas-led government.

Mr Abbas's determination to assume security control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt emerged as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which he heads, demanded that the Hamas-controlled cabinet clears with his office statements made to world leaders.

The first signs of friction between Mr Abbas and the new cabinet since it was sworn in last week came at the same time as Israel arrested a cabinet minister, Khaled Abu Arafa, in Jerusalem. Mr Abu Arafa, an independent who serves as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, was detained for several hours after being forced out of his car by police when he rejected orders to leave it.

The official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that Mr Abbas was assuming jurisdiction of all the Gaza border crossings - which includes Karni - which has been closed by Israel for much of the past three months, causing mounting food and other shortages in the Gaza Strip.

Mr Abbas is under pressure to wrest responsibility for the crossing from the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior, headed by the Hamas minister Said Siyam, because of threats that the EU monitors there will leave their posts because of a ban on contacts with Hamas.

But a Palestinian official said last night that while Mr Abbas was determined to assume control of Rafah to prevent it closing altogether, there was still debate over whether he should take responsibility for the hardship inflicted by the closure of other crossings, including Karni. The official also said Mr Abbas was seeking to take over Rafah with Hamas's agreement but would have to do so without it if there was a crisis.

Palestinian farmers and suppliers yesterday petitioned the High Court of Justice to open the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza and "end the economic asphyxiation" of the Gaza Strip. According to their claim, the closure has caused losses of more than $24m (£14m) to the Palestinian economy.

Meanwhile the PLO - the umbrella body dominated by Fatah, the losers in the January election, but of which Hamas is not a member - issued a surprisingly strong statement criticising recent declarations by the new ministers and insisting they abide by previous Palestinian Authority agreements - one of three central demands made by the Western powers.

It accused the new government of making "conflicting statements which would provide Israel and those who are behind it with the pretext to impose siege on our people and thwart the international community efforts to end the occupation and settlements to our land."

While it was not immediately clear how far the PLO statement bore the personal stamp of Mr Abbas, the apparently mounting issues between the two wings of the administration were due to be discussed at a meeting between Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister and Mr Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen.

Mr Haniyeh said: "This is an elected government, not an appointed one. Brother Abu Mazen confirmed to me more than once that he will not touch the authority of the current government."

A source close to Mr Abbas said that a plan - strongly rejected by Hamas - to put Rashid Abu Shabak, a former security chief in Gaza under the old administration, in charge of internal security had been shelved. Mr Haniyeh had said: "The government does not accept the creation of parallel bodies that may take away its authority."