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Israel OKs Egyptian troops on Gaza border
Updated: 2005-09-01 08:58

Israel's parliament on Wednesday approved a plan to post Egyptian troops on the Gaza border, setting the stage for an Israeli military pullout from the sensitive coastal frontier it has held for 38 years, AP reported.

But the stormy debate over giving up control to a former enemy and the possibility of Palestinian arms smuggling added fuel to the rivalry between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu.

The parliamentary vote was not close 53 to 28. It came as Netanyahu, who quit the Cabinet just three weeks ago, opened a campaign to unseat Sharon as the leader of the ruling Likud Party.

The challenge was based on opposition to the pullout among registered Likud members. While the evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank had widespread public support, many ideologues in the traditionally pro-settlement party were opposed. They control party institutions, giving Netanyahu a solid chance to oust Sharon from the helm.

The split in Israel's largest party has called into question whether Sharon's government can live out its term until November 2006 and move ahead on peacemaking with the Palestinians after the Gaza pullout. Israel is expected to turn over control of Gaza to the Palestinians in mid-September.

Opening his campaign, Netanyahu visited one of the most contentious areas in a trilateral dispute involving Israel, the Palestinians and the United States the three-mile corridor between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, Israel's largest West Bank settlement.

Netanyahu criticized Sharon for freezing a government plan to construct 3,650 homes in the area to block a Palestinian hold there and on nearby east Jerusalem.

"He has created a precedent that will lead to the division of Jerusalem," Netanyahu told reporters during the tour. "My starting (my campaign) here is not coincidental because Jerusalem is in danger."

Sharon said this week that more West Bank settlements would be dismantled under a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he hopes to keep Israeli control over Maaleh Adumim and at least two other settlement blocs, where most of the West Bank's 246,000 settlers live.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that all settlements "should be removed, from the first stone to the last stone," singling out the ones around Jerusalem.

Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of the state they want to create in the West Bank and Gaza. They charge that the Israeli plan to build in the Maaleh Adumim corridor is a way of cutting off the West Bank from east Jerusalem.

The United States often criticized expansion of Maaleh Adumim, also worrying about unilateral steps that could pre-empt negotiations or even prevent a peace deal.

During the parliamentary debate on the agreement with Egypt, Netanyahu displayed his basic distrust of both the Palestinians and the Egyptians, insisting on Israeli control of the Egypt-Gaza border, as well as the Gaza seacoast and air space.

"It is important that we keep the Philadelphi road in our hands," he said, referring to the border access route, "and certainly not give a port or airport to the Islamic terror base which is going to arise in Gaza."

During more than four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israeli forces have uncovered and destroyed dozens of tunnels under the border, used by Palestinians for smuggling arms and contraband into Gaza.

But Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, an ex-army chief of staff and Sharon ally, dismissed fears about turning the task over to Egypt.

"I want to tell all the members of the house who don't understand reality has changed," Mofaz said, adding that the decision to allow Egyptian border police along the eight-mile stretch of desert "does not endanger Israel's security."

The parliamentary action was little more than a technicality, changing the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty to allow for posting 750 lightly armed Egyptian border police.

In Gaza, meanwhile, dozens of Palestinian youths stormed an empty Israeli army watchtower guarding the evacuated Gush Katif settlement bloc.

Police struggling to control the crowd fired shots in the air. One policeman was beaten by youths. The scuffle raised questions about the ability of Palestinian police to maintain control over Gaza once the Israeli withdrawal is completed in the coming weeks.

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