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Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire at Erez Border Crossing - 2004-02-26

Two Palestinian gunmen opened fire at the main crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, killing at least one Israeli before being shot dead by security forces. The attack comes hours after Israeli troops raided several Palestinian banks, seizing millions of dollars in assets.

The gunmen opened fire at the Erez crossing Thursday morning, sparking an hour-long shootout with security forces. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Erez crossing is used by thousands of Palestinians every day to come into Israel to work. The military closed down the crossing and the adjoining industrial zone after Thursday's shootout, sending Palestinian workers back home.

On Wednesday, Israeli security forces raided several banks in the West Bank city of Ramallah and hauled away close to $9 million from accounts, the Israelis say were used to fund terrorist activities.

In particular, security officials said they were looking for accounts or money transfers linked to militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese-based Hizbollah. Israeli officials say that Palestinian militants have told them during interrogations that they received money from these groups to make bombs, buy weapons and carry out attacks against Israelis.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the confiscated money would be used to improve the lives of Palestinians. He said some of the money would go to health services, schools and toward improving the infrastructure.

Many Palestinians scoff at such promises. They say that Israeli military raids are to blame for destroying so much of the Palestinian infrastructure while enforced curfews and blockades have battered the economy and greatly increased poverty among average Palestinians.

One Palestinian newspaper called Wednesday's raids armed robbery, while Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said the raid smacks of mafia tactics. Finance Minister Salam Fayad said he feared the raid could cause a run on banks.

The U.S. State Department also criticized the raid, saying it would be better if Israel coordinated with the Palestinians to track and freeze assets earmarked for militant attacks.