A senior Israeli defense official yesterday challenged the Palestinian Authority to slam shut the open border between Gaza and Egypt, saying its credibility was on the line over its failure to stop the flow of people, including gunrunners, across the frontier.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority have both said that they fear al-Qaeda terrorists will infiltrate into Gaza through the open Gaza-Egypt border, where Palestinians and Egyptians have been crossing largely unfettered since Israel withdrew from the area on Monday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday said the chaos at the border had been brought under control to a "very high degree." But on Thursday evening people were still crossing, though the numbers had dropped from previous days when thousands passed freely across the frontier.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, said weapons had been smuggled across the porous border and the rate of smuggling was likely to increase if the Palestinians failed to act quickly.
"The Palestinian authority is facing a supreme test of its credibility," he told Israel Army Radio. "They look like they're running a system which has neither law nor order, neither organization nor authority."
Egypt has started deploying 750 border troops to secure its side of the frontier and prevent weapons smuggling, but has so far failed to halt the flow of people and arms, including hundreds of assault rifles and pistols.
Gilad, however, said he believed the Egyptians would act.
"Egypt ... has to impose down to the smallest detail a regime of security ... to stop smuggling, to stop breaches of its sovereignty. As far as I understand the Egyptians, they are determined to do that," he said.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Israelis had caused the problem by not coordinating their Gaza pullout with the Palestinians.
"Mr. Gilad knows very well that the whole thing was unilateral," Erekat said. "We had to pick up the pieces after they left without them even telling us when they were going to leave."
Meanwhile, in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the Palestinians are entitled to their own state, and his country had no desire to rule over them. He urged reconciliation and compromise to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but said that after Israel's Gaza pullout it was now up to the Palestinians to "prove their desire for peace" by putting a halt to terror and disarming militants.
"The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them and have no aspiration to rule over them," Sharon said. "They are also entitled to freedom, and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own."
Sharon's Likud party passed a resolution in 2002 opposing a Palestinian state and also largely opposed the Gaza withdrawal.
Commentators saw the UN speech, made in Hebrew and broadcast live during Israeli prime time, as indicating Sharon's intention to leave his divided party and seek a new, more centrist grouping.
"It sounded like the Prime Minister's statement of farewell to his party," Aluf Benn wrote in the Haaretz daily. "Sharon appeared to understand that he has no chance of winning in the Likud and must seek a new political way.
The Likud's governing central committee is to convene on Sept. 26 for what promises to be a stormy session in which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to demand a date for primaries where he will challenge Sharon for the party leadership.