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The European Union agreed Monday to monitor a Gaza-Egypt border crossing that serves as the main gate to the world for Palestinians in the coastal strip as an EU delegation toured the area.
The deployment of foreign inspectors at the Rafah terminal is a key element of an emerging Israeli-Palestinian deal on new border arrangements following Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in September.
EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, to "assume the third party responsibility" for monitoring the border crossing, said Javier Solana, the EU's security affairs chief.
Israel closed Rafah just before the withdrawal, while the terminal has opened only sporadically since then to allow passage of hardship cases.
The Palestinians want the Europeans to serve as advisers, 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.
Prime Minister Ariel 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 alternate crossings under Israeli control if an agreement on Rafah could not be reached, Cohen said.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Mohammed 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."
Reopening Rafah under Palestinian control is a crucial sovereignty issue for Gazans since it would give them authority over their borders for the first time. 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 be copied at a future airport and seaport in Gaza. Israel wants the Europeans there to ensure that terrorists and weapons do not enter Gaza.
European officials met separately Sunday with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Europeans told him the inspectors were ready to fulfill whatever role agreed to by the Israelis and Palestinians.
Later Monday, international envoy James Wolfensohn was to chair a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials to try to resolve the remaining disputes over Rafah.
Wolfensohn will be in the region for a week and also hopes to make progress on other unresolved Gaza issues, including improvements at crossings from Gaza into Israel. Israel is a key export market for the Palestinians.
A key issue at Monday's meeting will be Israel's demand to monitor Rafah long-distance, via computer hookup and closed-circuit TV, Erekat said. The Palestinians reject the demand, saying the presence of European inspectors should be sufficient.
Erekat said he hoped an agreement on Rafah could be reached by the end of the week.
Palestinian workers at Rafah set up checkpoints Monday and hooked up security cameras to monitor the approaches to the terminal. Dozens of Palestinian policemen took up positions along the perimeter wall and at the crossing's main gate.
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