European monitors extend stay at Rafah crossing

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday that European monitors have agreed to stay on for another year at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, Gaza's only gateway to the world. The Palestinians took control of Rafah in a US-brokered agreement on Gaza crossings, reached after Israel's pullout from the coastal strip in September 2005. Under the deal, the European observers were deployed to watch the Palestinian inspectors and make sure no militants or weapons are smuggled through. At a liaison office a few miles away, Israeli, Palestinian and European inspectors also monitor the crossing via real-time TV and data feeds. The observers' mandate expired on Thursday, and Erekat said he was informed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana that the Europeans agreed to stay on another year, until May 25, 2008. "This is a very important decision," Erekat said. "We are looking for the Europeans to help us and normalize the movement of the crossing." Since Hamas-linked militants captured Gilad Schalit last June, the terminal has been closed about 80 percent of the time. The Israeli Defense Ministry says the crossing has been exploited for smuggling weapons and money to Gaza, and that Israel allows it to open periodically on humanitarian grounds.