UK offers to send military advisers to monitor Gaza

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The Independent Online

Britain has offered to send military advisers to Gaza to help Palestinians police the area after an Israeli pull-out, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

Britain has offered to send military advisers to Gaza to help Palestinians police the area after an Israeli pull-out, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

The development came as the volatility of the area was emphasised by an incident yesterday in which at least four Palestinian militants as well as two police officers were killed on the border crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

There are now concerns that violence in Gaza could surge ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from the territory. Israel has said it would withdraw from much of Gaza and parts of the West Bank if peace talks remained frozen in the coming months.

An Israeli government spokesman, Avi Pazner, said: "The Palestinians have stepped up their terrorist efforts in the Gaza Strip lately. We see a concerted effort by all three terrorist organisations." He added that the air force would also continue to send helicopters and warplanes to carry out strikes against militants.

Some worry that as the Israelis leave Gaza, militant groups could try to take control of the territory from the hobbled police forces of the Palestinian Authority.

British officials have made clear that should the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, go ahead with his promise to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, the advisers would be available to bolster Palestinian security. The offer, part of wider negotiations between the UK and the Palestinians over the past fortnight, has received a cool reaction from Israel.

The Foreign Office insisted it would be for the Palestinians to keep their territory secure and deal with the terrorist threat. Any British advisers in Gaza would be there only in a support role.

Israel is wrestling with a plan, announced last month by Mr Sharon, to remove Israeli troops and 7,500 settlers. There are one million Palestinians inside the Gaza Strip.

While Israel has previously resisted any European or multinational efforts to help police the Palestinian territories, there is a growing belief that Britain or other countries could have a positive impact. An Israeli official in Washington said: "No one wants to see Hamas take over or a security vacuum there. The idea that you can have responsible parties help with security ­ Israel does not have a problem with that."

In Whitehall, the Ministry of Defence said that nothing had been decided. But the Foreign Office issued a carefully worded statement, partly to rebut a report that British troops were already on the way to Palestine. The statement said: "We have been discussing with the Palestinians various security measures ... and the UK is encouraging Palestinian action in areas where they could deliver a visible improvement in the security situation. This is in line with what we and others in the international community have been pressing for ­ implementation of Palestinian commitments on security. Such improvements will be important in themselves and might be a way of breaking the spiralling cycle of violence. There has been no deployment of military personnel."

Yesterday's attack on the Erez crossing was by militants armed with rifles and driving cars laden with explosives, staging what was described as a "methodically choreographed assault".Four militants and two PA policemen were killed in a combined shooting attack and double suicide bombing by three vehicles, including at least one jeep painted in Israeli army colours and reportedly using forged Israeli military plates.

The first jeep was detonated near the Palestinian border post as it approached from inside Gaza. At least one militant and two policemen, Bashir Abu-Omrein, 28, and Hussam Aliwah, 28, were killed; hospital officials said the two died under gunfire. Nineteen others were wounded.

The second jeep also exploded on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

Israeli soldiers shot dead two militants in the third vehicle, which drove into the closed gates of the first Israeli army post. Israeli sources said one militant, dressed in Israeli uniform, got out of the car and opened fire, and that the soldiers returned fire, killing both men. Hamas said it carried out the operation with the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

A seventh Palestinian was killed at Tulkarm in the West Bank. Israeli sources said that the dead man, one of three Palestinians walking towards a military patrol, was carrying a gun. Palestinians said he was an unarmed and uniformed policeman returning home after night duty.