Israel: Palestinians May Enter Gaza Soon

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres (search) said Saturday that Palestinians would be able to enter and leave Gaza after Israeli troops pull out next week, but Palestinian leaders must prevent militant attacks or suffer the consequences.

Egyptian troops, meanwhile, began deploying along Egypt's (search) volatile desert frontier with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling and illicit crossings after the Israeli military withdrawal, expected to begin Sunday.

Officials with Egypt's defense and foreign ministries said the first soldiers arrived early Saturday in Rafah (search), and the remainder would take their places during the next week.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is expected in Gaza on Sunday to try to complete a post-pullout border deal between Israel and the Palestinians for the Rafah crossing, which Israel closed earlier this week to the Palestinians' dismay.

Israel has agreed in principle to Suleiman's proposal to deploy foreign inspectors at Rafah when it reopens for passenger traffic but says a final deal depends on how well the Palestinians combat militant groups.

Palestinians have voiced fears that the closure of Rafah — their main gateway to the outside world — coupled with existing restrictions on entry to Israel and the lack of a harbor or airport would restrict Gaza's nearly 1.4 million residents to the overcrowded coastal strip.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Peres said Israel has no intention of bottling the Palestinians in Gaza, but their future depends on the Palestinian leadership's ability to rein in the militants.

"We are not making Gaza into a prison, people will be able to leave Gaza and enter Gaza and within Gaza the roads will be open," he said. "Obviously, in all these cases we shall attend to Israel's security needs."

In an interview published in a Palestinian newspaper Saturday, international Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn said the Israelis agreed to implement Suleiman's Rafah plan within six months, but Palestinians were pressing for the crossing to be reopened sooner.

"Some Palestinians are wondering why it shouldn't be three months, or maybe one month or one week," Wolfensohn told the Al Quds daily. "They are forgetting that Rafah being in Palestinian and Egyptian hands, without an Israeli presence, is something they should be proud of as a major achievement. It should be the start for making economic progress."

Wolfensohn said Palestinians initially would travel between Gaza and the noncontiguous West Bank through Israel in escorted road convoys. No decisions have been made on a permanent travel solution, he said, but a rail link is an option.

Peres said the end of Israel's 38-year presence in Gaza gives the Palestinians an opportunity that must not be squandered.

"The Palestinians need to show that are capable of controlling Gaza," he said. "This is the first time in the history of the Palestinian people where they have been given the opportunity to fully govern a defined territory."

He said valuable international aid pledged to the Palestinians would be at risk if law and order failed to prevail in Gaza.

"Who in the world will pay money or support the Palestinians if terror rules Gaza?" he asked.

In the latest episode of lawlessness, at least 60 armed Palestinians seized two Palestinian government buildings in the Gaza Strip town of Deir el-Balah on Saturday, demanding that they be given jobs with the Palestinian Authority, witnesses said.

The men, who did not meet any opposition, occupied the local governor's headquarters and nearby offices of the Interior Ministry, the witnesses said.

Wednesday's assassination of a former top security chief and relative of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was another indication of the chaos plaguing Gaza as the Palestinian Authority prepares to take control.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Friday he expects all Israeli soldiers out of Gaza by Monday or Tuesday.