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Israel closes vital Gaza-Egypt border crossing

Israel closed Gaza's vital border crossing with Egypt just days before completing its military pullout from the coastal strip but agreed in principle to allow foreign inspectors to take over security of the area.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel on Thursday closed Gaza's vital border crossing with Egypt just days before completing its military pullout from the coastal strip. Palestinians charged the move blocks Gaza's main link to the outside world, but Israel said it would build a new terminal to allow Palestinians to travel freely without Israeli interference.

Officials close to the negotiations said a breakthrough of sorts had been achieved: Israel agreed in principle to allow foreign inspectors to take over security at the border, though their arrival could be months away.

Israel will complete its military withdrawal from Gaza on Sunday night, defense officials said, setting the stage for what's expected to be an emotional Palestinian takeover of the lands formerly occupied by Jewish settlers. But Israel and the Palestinians have so far failed to finalize arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt crossing — fueling fears that the overcrowded and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip will be cut off after Israel's exit.

A trap or a security measure?
The two sides have widely divergent concepts, both based on near-sacred principles: The Palestinians want elements of sovereignty, meaning no Israeli presence at the border, while the Israelis insist on control of their own security. So the shutting of the Rafah crossing on Thursday appeared to Palestinians as a trap closing on them, while Israel described it as a security measure to ensure a smooth pullout.

About 750 Egyptian troops are expected to deploy along the Gaza border this weekend as part of an Egyptian-Israeli agreement under which Israeli forces will leave the border area.

"Starting from that moment, all the responsibility will devolve onto the Egyptians and also the multinational force, which is supposed to supervise," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Army Radio. The force was posted in the Egyptian Sinai desert as part of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

Synagogues to be destroyed
Two weeks ago Israel completed its evacuation of some 8,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza. One of the final obstacles to the pullout was removed on Thursday when Israel's Supreme Court ruled, over the objections of rabbis, that some 20 synagogues in the abandoned settlements can be destroyed. The Settlers Council denounced the decision, saying, "The remnants of trust in the Supreme Court are being destroyed along with the synagogues of Gush Katif," the main Gaza settlement bloc.

In violence Thursday near the Gaza-Egypt border, a 20-year-old man was shot dead by Israeli troops and a 14-year-old boy was wounded, doctors said. The Israeli military said an army patrol in the area came under fire, then saw three people who had breached the security fence into the Israeli-controlled settlement bloc. The troops fired at the infiltrators.

Israel says it will take up to six months to build a new terminal at Rafah. In the meantime, Palestinians will be able to travel to Egypt through a new crossing at Kerem Shalom, where the borders of Egypt, Gaza and Israel converge, expected to be ready by the middle of next week, an Israeli Ports Authority official said.

A model for future arrangements
Two officials close to the negotiations, who asked that their names not be used because talks are still ongoing, said Israel has agreed in principle to allow international monitors to ensure security at the refurbished Rafah crossing. If that happens, it could serve as a model for arrangements at other facilities desired by the Palestinians, including a harbor and airport.

However, Asaf Shariv, a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said no final decision has been made on the foreign inspectors. "There are many options. This is what will be decided in the next six months," he said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, "We hope ... to see a functioning crossing in Rafah in six months. We won't be there. The Palestinians will be on one side, the Egyptians will be on the other side."

Palestinian officials said Israel unilaterally shut down Rafah and gave no guarantees that it will reopen or that foreign inspectors would be stationed there.

"They want to get out of Rafah, but they don't want to leave us the freedom of movement," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib.

‘The economy will never recover’
Khatib said this could spell disaster. "Everybody is in agreement that without removing restrictions on people and cargo, the economy will never recover," he said. Under current arrangements, Palestinians apply to Israel for exit permits and have to wait weeks or months.

Several times during the current conflict, Israel closed the crossing in both directions, stranding thousands on the Egyptian side.

For the 1.3 million Palestinian residents who live in this impoverished and densely populated strip of land, freedom to travel is vital. Without it, they say, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza means little.

Gaza resident Ismail Daoud spent most of Thursday on the phone with his daughter, who is visiting relatives in Egypt. After the sudden closure of Rafah, he's not sure when she will make it home.

"We just want to be able to take a trip without going through the misery that we are forced to endure every time we leave Gaza," said Daoud. "As long as Israel is controlling the border, things will never change."

The last time Daoud, 54, left Gaza was in June. He spent two nights in a waiting hall at the crossing, using newspapers and cardboard he had scavenged as a mattress.