Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Thursday expressed concern on the possibility of al-Qaida terrorists to infiltrate into Gaza through the open Gaza-Egypt border, where Palestinians and Egyptians have been crossing largely unfettered since Israel withdrew from the area four days ago.
In a deal worked out with Israel, Egypt is supposed to deploy 750 border troops to secure the frontier and prevent weapons smuggling, but neither those troops nor Palestinian policemen have been able to halt the flow of people and arms, including hundreds of assault rifles and pistols.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday said the chaos at the border had been brought under control to a "very high degree." But it appeared most of the Egyptian forces had not yet deployed.
A trickle of people were still crossing the border Thursday, though the numbers had dropped from previous days when swarms moved freely across the frontier. Some Gazans were parking their cars along the border wall and filling them with smuggled cigarettes and gasoline.
Israel fears international terrorists will exploit the chaotic border to infiltrate Gaza and Israel.
"We're talking about Iran, we're talking elements in Syria, we're talking about groups like Hezbollah and we're talking also about international terrorist groups like al-Qaida," said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev. Israel has long accused both Iran and Syria of sponsoring militant groups.
Rafiq Husseini, a top Abbas aide, said, "we are even more worried than Israel about al-Qaida coming here because al-Qaida will harm us more than Israel." Such a presence, he said, would hurt prospects for peace and renewed negotiations with Israel.
"The Palestinian Authority security apparatus will arrest any suspected al-Qaida members or other terrorist groups if they infiltrate Gaza," he said.
Regev and other officials said Israel fears that militants will leave Gaza and enter Israel through the Egypt-Israeli border in the Sinai Desert, an unfenced frontier. The Egypt-Israel border has long been a favorite crossing point for drug runners, illegal workers and prostitutes.
Israel's border patrol arrested 21 Gazans trying to get into Israel through Sinai overnight, said border patrol spokesman Ilan Azini. He said the infiltrators were apparently either trying to enter Israel to get work or attempting to reach the West Bank, reports the AP.
The strike was defensive in nature and came in response to three attacks on the US military in February