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EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels called on Israel Monday to "facilitate the preparations and conduct" of the upcoming PA elections, on the same day Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel won't do so if Hamas takes part in the elections.
A statement on the Middle East issued after the EU meeting "underlined the importance of the forthcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council as an essential element for progress in the peace process." As expected, the ministers stopped short of Israel's position, which Sharon reiterated Monday at the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, that Hamas not take part in the elections. Instead, the ministers said that "violence and terror are incompatible with democratic processes and urged all factions, including Hamas, to renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist, and disarm."
The ministers then "urged Israel to facilitate the preparations and conduct of the elections, including in occupied East Jerusalem."
At the same meeting, the EU agreed to monitor the Rafah crossing. The ministers expressed the EU's willingness "in principle to provide assistance with the operation of crossings at Gaza's borders on the basis of an agreement between the parties." The statement said the ministers were waiting for a full report from the EU team in Israel now talking to both sides.
Israeli and Palestinian officials met with Quartet disengagement envoy James Wolfensohn in a meeting that continued late Monday night on hammering out the details of the arrangements at the Rafah crossing.
The Palestinians want the Europeans to serve as advisers at the crossing, while Israel wants the foreigners to be in charge, with the authority to carry out arrests or confiscate luggage if necessary. Israel is concerned about an influx of weapons and terrorists. EU officials have said the EU has no intention of serving as border guards or customs officers at the site.
Israel closed Rafah just before disengagement, and it has opened only sporadically since then to allow passage of hardship cases.
Sharon told the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Monday that it was important for Israel to monitor who is passing through Rafah, MK Ran Cohen said.
Sharon told lawmakers that Israel must retain the right to keep monitoring, and that Israel was preparing alternative crossings under Israeli control if an agreement on Rafah could not be reached, Cohen said.
Palestinian cabinet minister Muhammad Dahlan accused Israel of trying to maintain a presence in Gaza despite its withdrawal.
"We don't want any [Israeli] foothold here," Dahlan said. "What we want is freedom of movement for passengers in and out of Gaza, and freedom of movement for goods out of Gaza to Egypt."
Touring the border, Marc Otte, the EU's Mideast envoy, said: "We are not here to control anybody. We are here to help and assist."
Wolfensohn has made clear that he believes Israeli-Palestinian agreements on Rafah and other crossings on the Israeli border are also necessary to rebuild impoverished Gaza.
The deployment of foreign inspectors in Rafah would set an important precedent that could then be copied at a future airport and seaport in Gaza. The ministers also discussed Iran, and condemned "in the strongest terms" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments about wiping Israel off the map. The ministers said they "deplore calls for violence and for the destruction of any state. These comments cause concern about Iran's role in the region and its future intentions."
AP contributed to this report.