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Threat shuts Gaza industrial park

GAZA CITY -- Israel sent thousands of Palestinians home from an industrial park on the Gaza-Israel border yesterday after receiving intelligence warnings of a possible Palestinian attack on the zone, a military spokeswoman said.

About 6,000 Palestinians work in the Erez industrial park, which also houses Israeli military facilities.

It was the second time the park had been shut down in the past five days, army radio said, noting a similar evacuation was carried out Friday.

In the past, Palestinian gunmen have penetrated the complex and the adjacent border crossing is a regular flashpoint.

Israeli Jews are observing the weeklong Passover festival under high security alerts. Islamic militants have warned they would retaliate for Israel's assassination two weeks ago of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Militants, some dressed as soldiers, stormed the Erez crossing last month in a taxi and two jeeps disguised as Israeli military vehicles. The four attackers and two Palestinian policemen were killed. The Israeli targets were unhurt.

That raid followed a Feb. 26 gunfire attack at Erez that killed an Israeli soldier and a Jan. 14 suicide bombing at the crossing that killed three soldiers and a guard.

Israeli troops blew up a weapons smuggling tunnel yesterday on the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, the seventh such tunnel to be discovered along the volatile border since the beginning of the year, the army said.

According to the army, about 80 smugglers' tunnels have been found in the area since the outbreak of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence more than three years ago.

Israeli troops regularly patrol a narrow strip between Egypt and the southern end of the Gaza Strip. The tunnels go under the patrol road and emerge in the Rafah refugee camp. Since 2000, Israeli troops have repeatedly raided Rafah and razed scores of homes near the border.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel said this week that even after a planned Israel withdrawal from Gaza, Israel would hold on to the patrol road, at least initially, to prevent weapons smuggling.

Israeli officials and foreign diplomats have expressed concern that an Israeli pullout from Gaza would leave a political vacuum that would be filled by Hamas. Responding to a call by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to join his administration, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza appeared willing to enter a coalition with Arafat's Fatah and other secular Palestinian groups.

"We believe that all political groups should share in political decision-making," Sayed Seyam said.

In the West Bank, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy lost an arm when an explosive he threw at Israeli soldiers blew up prematurely. Witnesses said three Israeli jeeps had entered the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus in what the army said was a routine patrol. According to the army, four explosives were hurled by Palestinians at the Israeli force.

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