European Union foreign ministers gave final approval Monday to a 50- to 70-person mission to monitor the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt _ a move they hope will help foster peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The first 20 observers will be in place by Friday morning when the border is expected to open as part of what British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called a "historic deal" brokered last week between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In a declaration, the EU foreign ministers said the border opening is "essential for promoting peaceful economic development" and "fundamental to improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
"The priority now is to ensure that the commitments made in it (the agreement) are translated into reality," the EU ministers said.
Straw said the deal brokered between Israelis and Palestinians last week to open the crossing was a "historic deal ... by which the Israeli government had agreed essentially to an international presence in monitoring the crossing at Rafah.
"It is of fundamental importance in ensuring that Gaza is not in the future ... a prison. It opens economic and social relations. It's also of very great significance in what it says about increasing confidence" between the two sides, he said.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU mission would play an "active monitoring role to give assurances and confidence to Israelis that security has been taken care off."
Ferrero-Waldner said the European Commission would send a separate mission of 172 EU election observers to monitor the Palestinian parliamentary elections planned for January 25.
"The EU is helping to lay the foundations for a modern accountable administration and a more peaceful future for the Palestinian people," she said.
The EU foreign ministers called on Israel to ensure freedom of movement for "all candidates, election workers and voters" in the Palestinian territories and also in east Jerusalem, where it called on Israel to facilitate voter registration of Palestinians.
A core team of 44 observers will be deployed to the Palestinian territories in mid-December, officials said.
The foreign ministers also said the monitors would have contact with all candidates but noted that the observers "would not engage in political discussions."
The EU ministers also reiterated calls for Hamas to renounce violence, to recognize Israel's right to exist and to disarm.
With EU monitors in place, it will be the first time the Palestinians have control over a border. The EU said it hopes the opening will be part of a wider effort to rebuild Gaza's economy, destroyed in years of fighting and restrictions imposed by Israelis to prevent terrorists and weapons from entering the territory.
Israel feared that without monitoring and guidance, the Palestinians would not be able to control and prevent the entry of militants and weapons.
EU monitors will act as mediators between the Israelis, who will keep tabs on the border via closed-circuit television, and the Palestinians running the crossing. The mission also will train the Palestinians in running the customs checkpoint.
Israel will be able to object to allowing some people through but the Palestinians will have ultimate authority over the crossing. The Europeans, through a joint situation room that will include Israel and the Palestinians, presumably will referee any disputes.
The mission, led by Italian Maj. Gen. Piero Pistolese, will include police officers from Germany, Spain and other EU nations.
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