Israeli newspapers reported on Thursday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had approved arms shipments to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Islamic militant group, Hamas. The government is neither confirming nor denying the report.
One of Israel's largest mass circulation dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth, reports that, in recent days, Israeli army troops have escorted trucks from the Jordan border to the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were carrying 950 M-16 assault rifles.
The paper says the rifles were turned over to the Palestinian presidential guard of President Mahmoud Abbas. The paper says the decision to allow the transfer of the weapons was taken by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who expressed fears that Mr. Abbas would be attacked by Palestinian militants.
Tensions have been rising between Mr. Abbas' Fatah party and Hamas, which won January elections and took over the Palestinian Authority in March.
Israeli government officials contacted by VOA refused to comment on the matter.
Saeb Erekat, a close aide to Mahmoud Abbas, says he is not sure if, in fact, Palestinian security forces have received the weapons. But, speaking with the Arabic-language Radio Sawa, he said that, if they have, it would not be out of the ordinary.
Erekat says, under existing agreements with Israel, Palestinian security forces are authorized to receive light weapons and ammunition from Jordan and Egypt. Erekat says the issue is being publicized now to embarrass Mr. Abbas.
Several Hamas lawmakers on Thursday denounced the alleged arms transfers saying they were designed to sow divisions among Palestinians.
Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center says it appears that Israel's government is growing increasingly concerned about the security of Mr. Abbas, but the alleged arms transfers could alienate both Palestinians and Israelis.
"First of all, vis-à-vis with Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian constituents, it does not look great that he is getting help from Israel," Teitelbaum said. "From Israel's perspective, there have already been appeals to Israel's high court of justice against the supplying of weapons to the Palestinians, because these weapons have, in the past, been turned on Israelis. This is not a clean move, but apparently the government feels that it is worthwhile."
Hamas officials are embroiled in a controversy of their own involving the transfer of large amounts of cash into the Gaza Strip to pay back wages to government employees. On Wednesday, Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar managed to circumvent international prohibitions on money transfers to the Palestinian territories, by crossing the Egypt-Gaza border with $20 million in cash stuffed into about a dozen suitcases.
On Thursday, the Hamas information minister passed through the crossing point with $2 million in cash. Hamas officials say the money was turned over to the Palestinian Finance Ministry to pay the salaries of Palestinian civil servants. European Union monitors at the border crossing say the Palestinian officials were allowed to proceed because of their VIP status as senior members of the Palestinian government.
Hamas has been unable to pay about 165,000 government employees because money transfers and international donor aid has been suspended to the Palestinian Authority, because Hamas refuses to renounce violence and recognize Israel.