By Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff and Akiva Eldar
A bodyguard of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was shot dead Thursday night when Haniyeh\’s convoy came under fire as he returned to Gaza from Egypt, after spending hours waiting to cross the border.
Hamas officials said the 24-year-old guard was shot in the head during intense gunfire from Fatah forces. "The bodyguard to Ismail Haniyeh was killed during an assassination attempt," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
The convoy came under fire as it passed the Rafah border crossing, and it was forced to speed away.
The Palestinian prime minister had been delayed for hours on the Egyptian side of Rafah, after Israel prevented him from entering Gaza with $35 million in funds raised on a trip to Muslim states.
Arriving home around midnight after a long day at the crossing, Haniyeh appeared furious over the gunfire at his convoy. He blamed Israel for the delay but added, "we know the party that shot directly at our cars, injuring some of the people with me… and we also know how to deal with this."
About 50 gunmen greeted Haniyeh at his home in a refugee camp next to Gaza City, firing in the air and throwing candies.
Israel, which triggered the closure of the border to prevent Haniyeh\’s passage with the money, agreed Thursday evening to allow him to cross if he left the money in Egypt.
Security sources in Israel said that Hamas officials who will attempt in the future to bypass the economic embargo on the Palestinian Authority will also not be allowed to cross back into the Gaza Strip.
Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for European monitors at the crossing, confirmed Haniyeh left the funds in Egypt. Hamas sources said the money had stayed in Egypt with two delegation officials, who would sort out what to do with it. Israel Radio said that the money would be transferred Friday to the bank account of the Arab League in Cairo.
The delay of Haniyeh\’s passage sparked gunbattles at the border as Hamas gunmen, enraged by the Israel-imposed ban, seized control of the terminal and exchanged fire with both Egyptian officers and guards of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
More than two dozen people, including the Haniyeh\’s son, Abed, 27, were wounded in the fighting, deepening factional violence that has pushed the rival Hamas and Fatah parties closer to civil war. An official said that the son was not badly hurt.
Egypt said its border troops had fired in the air to prevent Palestinians from crossing from Gaza.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to stop Palestinians entering Gaza via the Rafah border crossing, in order to prevent Haniyeh from crossing with the money.
"We are awaiting the return of the Europeans [monitors] so that we can cross tonight," Haniyeh told a Hamas radio station earlier Thursday evening. "Soon I will be with you."
Israeli security sources said that the decision to close the border was made to stop the cash transfer, not to prevent Haniyeh\’s return.
The head of Egypt\’s intelligence service, Omar Suleiman, had contacted Israeli officials in order to find a solution that would allow Haniyeh to return to the Strip.
Hamas has refused to meet the conditions for lifting an economic boycott imposed by the international community in the wake of its January election win, namely recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previously signed interim peace agreements.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Haniyeh\’s attempt to take the cash into Gaza "flies in the face of the will of the international community in terms of the rules that it has laid down."
Gunbattles on the border
Hamas militants burst into the Rafah border terminal Thursday evening, sparking a gunbattle with guards before taking control of the crossing.
Travelers at the terminal dove for cover and a top Hamas official furiously tried to persuade the militants to disperse.
Speaking on the radio, Haniyeh called on the gunmen to leave the area so the monitors could return.
In the chaos of the first attack, two loud explosions rocked the border area, and security officials said militants had blown a hole in the border fence about one kilometer from the terminal.
Hours later, gunfire erupted again at the border. Witnesses said Hamas gunmen were firing at the Egyptian side of the border, drawing return fire from the Egyptians and presidential guards from the rival Fatah movement.
During the battle, masked gunmen in three cars and a bulldozer stormed the terminal, witnesses said.
The gunmen went on a rampage inside the building, destroying computers and furniture insid and plunging the area into darkness, the witnesses said.
Palestinian official Hani Jabour, a coordinator at the Rafah crossing, said Israeli authorities closed the border after Haniyeh told Egyptian authorities he was carrying the money.
Haniyeh\’s premature return to Gaza midway through his first tour abroad since becoming prime minister came in the wake of rising tensions between Hamas and Fatah.
The economic boycott on the Palestinian Authority has forced the group to raise funds overseas in order to cover its ongoing expenditure.
Other senior Hamas officials have in recent months taken into Gaza millions of dollars raised overseas for this purpose.
On Wednesday, Haniyeh told a press conference in Khartum that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has pledged $10 million to the Palestinian government and the Palestinian people.
In addition, Iran made a pledge to Haniyeh earlier this week of $250 million for the Hamas government.
Israel concerned about Hamas ties with Iran
The security establishment has voiced its concern over the emergence of closer ties between Hamas and Iran, as Haniyeh\’s visit to Tehran this week is viewed by Israel as a possible step by them towards establish a strategic pact.
Israel considers the closer ties between Hamas and Iran as a move of defiance against the international community resulting in part from the group\’s success in overcoming the international economic boycott.
-Copy rights 2006 Haaretz (December 15, 2006) and Agencies