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Fatah Troops Enter Gaza With Israeli Assent
A small number of Israeli tanks also pushed just inside northern Gaza, the first ground operation there this year, and an artillery battery took up position on the border. Israeli military officials called both deployments defensive measures.
Israel has used shelling and limited ground operations in the past to stop Palestinian rocket fire. But the results have never been decisive against a weapon that is cheap, highly mobile and difficult to detect until it has been fired. The Israeli tactics have also resulted in many Palestinian civilian deaths.
"Hamas has essentially gone back to what we always knew they were -- a terrorist organization acting as a government," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "What they are trying to do is drag Israel back into Gaza after we left every inch of it. We do not want to rule Gaza."
The factional fighting cooled Thursday in the shadow of Israel's stepped-up military operations. But Fatah gunmen ambushed a Hamas funeral procession in Gaza, killing two men in the crowd.
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject, said the decision to allow Fatah troops into Gaza this week was based on trying to help Abbas take control of northern Gaza. That area is the prime launching ground for the erratic if lethal rockets known as Qassams.
"If you look at exit scenarios for what's going on there now, you could have a force loyal to Abbas in northern Gaza that could be highly useful to Israel," one Israeli official said. "But within the larger crisis you have to be careful. We don't want to be a part of this conflict, so this is a balancing act."
The troops were trained by Egyptian authorities under a program coordinated by Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, a special U.S. envoy to the region who has been working to improve security in Gaza and the West Bank in order to foster Israeli-Palestinian economic alliances in the short term and peace prospects over time.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dayton had not yet begun his phase of training Fatah forces because the funding was only recently approved. He said none of the troops who arrived in Gaza this week were trained with U.S. funds.
Although it is under Abbas's authority, the Presidential Guard is run by Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah lawmaker who has worked closely with several U.S. administrations. Abbas named Dahlan his national security adviser after Hamas and Fatah agreed in February to establish a power-sharing government.
The appointment infuriated Hamas leaders, who despise Dahlan for the crackdown he carried out against them as head of the Preventive Security branch following the 1993 Oslo accords. Hamas opposed the agreement, which created the Palestinian Authority.
"This is a complex situation, and we clearly hear Abbas say he wants to stop terrorism," a second Israeli official said. "But he has not been able to extend his authority over all of Gaza."
Israeli officials said the forces, whom one Israeli Defense Ministry official called "Dayton's guys," were trained in Egypt and numbered between 400 and 500 men.
Although Israel handed the Rafah crossing over to Palestinian and Egyptian control after evacuating Gaza, it maintains the ability to deny entry to anyone it does not want to pass through the terminal. It frequently employs this prerogative to prevent known members of armed Palestinian groups from entering the strip.
Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for the E.U. Border Assistance Mission deployed at Rafah as part of the turnover agreement, said the men arrived in several buses. "We had been informed they were arriving," Telleria said. "But this was coordinated between Israel and the Palestinian government. All we did was monitor the crossing."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.