JERUSALEM -- With Israeli and U.S. consent, Egypt shipped a cache of weapons through Israel to bolster the security forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with the militant Hamas movement, Israeli officials said yesterday.
Four trucks containing 2,000 automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and 2 million bullets crossed from Egypt into Israel on Wednesday and were escorted by Israeli military police to a crossing into the Gaza Strip, bound for units of Abbas' Presidential Guard there, the officials said.
Although the shipment was part of a U.S.-backed effort to upgrade the 6,000-member guard, it was the first in more than six years to be publicly authorized and assisted by Israel, which had balked at enabling any Palestinian faction to receive arms that might eventually be used against the Jewish state.
That concern faded last week as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embraced Abbas as a partner for peace talks. Details of the weapons delivery were worked out here Saturday during the first formal meeting between the two leaders, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
The shipment was first reported in yesterday's editions of Haaretz and later confirmed by Israeli officials in an unusual and risky public display of support for Abbas' effort to unseat the Hamas-led government by forcing early elections.
"The assistance is aimed at reinforcing the forces of peace in the face of the forces of darkness that threaten the future of the Middle East," Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic and security policy office, told Israeli radio.
Egyptian officials had no comment on the shipment.
Hamas is supported by Iran and Syria in its refusal to recognize or negotiate with Israel. Iran has been sending as much as $15 million per month to the Hamas movement, Israeli officials say, enabling it to build a paramilitary force parallel to Abbas' security apparatus.
Rival agendas and patrons have turned the armed clashes between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement into a proxy battle between Iran and Syria on the one hand and the Bush administration, European Union, Israel and moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan on the other.
The Bush administration is seeking congressional approval of $100 million to bolster Abbas' guard in the West Bank and Gaza, and expand its control over Gaza's border with Egypt to stop the smuggling of weapons and cash to Hamas.
Factional clashes have erupted often since Hamas ousted the long-ruling Fatah movement in elections in January and took control of the Cabinet and parliament. Seventeen people died in an 11-day stretch this month after Hamas resisted Abbas' call for early elections.
Egyptian mediators arranged a truce, but many Palestinians believe the lull will not last much past the Muslim festival of Eid, which ends Jan. 2.
Fatah has an estimated 50,000 men under arms in various security services and militias. But Hamas' paramilitary Executive Force and its Kassam Brigades, a guerrilla group, are considered disciplined and motivated enough to hold their own or prevail in a protracted civil conflict. They have about 6,000 fighters each.
The arms delivery made public yesterday was aimed at neutralizing Hamas' advantage in Gaza, where most of its forces are concentrated.
An Israeli military officer familiar with the Palestinian factional fighting said 2,000 rifles won't change the military balance. They were apparently sent and publicized, he said, as a "political demonstration" of Israel's backing for Abbas.
Until now, Israeli support for Fatah has been covert to avoid embarrassing Abbas, who was elected last year. Israel's dilemma is that open support for any Palestinian leader invariably risks backfiring, weakening him.
Moshe Elad, an Israeli reserve army colonel and former head of the army's liaison office with the Palestinians, said the government had decided it was pointless to keep its support for Abbas hidden.
"Some argue that revealing such aid might aggravate tensions," he said. "But the situation in the territories has already reached a boiling point."
It was not clear whether Abbas, under criticism from Hamas for seeking peace with Israel, wanted or even expected word of the arms shipment to be leaked.
An Abbas spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, denied any arms delivery, even as the Agence France-Presse news agency quoted a Palestinian security official as confirming what the Israelis reported.
Hamas called the shipment an unwanted American and Israeli intervention in Palestinian affairs.
Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.