Rafah crossing shut for 6 months

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Palestinian and Israeli officials said on Wednesday that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) will close the international Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt until further notice, at least for six months.

Palestinian Cabinet Secretary-General Samir Hleileh said that the move by Israel to close the Rafah crossing ‘will strengthen our suspicion that the Israelis want to turn Gaza into a big prison’.

The Palestinian National authority (PNA) insisted Israel can only claim it has ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza by ceding all control over its borders, air space and territorial waters.

Chief of the PNA border control Nazmi Muhanna confirmed the Rafah terminal would be officially closed for an unknown period from Thursday to allow for Israel’s withdrawal of its last soldiers from the Gaza Strip.

‘The Israelis told us today that the Rafah terminal had been shut until further notice,’ he said.

‘Alternative arrangements for crossings to and from Egypt will be made public as quickly as possible,’ Muhanna said in a statement.

Israel radio reported Wednesday the IOF will start withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and the Salahuddin (Philadelphi) route (the border area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip) on Monday, 12 September, and will complete the operation on Thursday, 15 September.

Israeli ‘Defence’ Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the closure of the Rafah crossing on Wednesday evening, The Jerusalem Post reported Thursday.

The newspaper added that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had ‘agreed on Wednesday to third party monitoring at the Rafah border crossing, becoming the first Israeli leader to agree to international supervision on the borders.

‘At a meeting with senior ministers, Sharon also accepted an Egyptian compromise solution for the Rafah crossing.

‘In addition to Sharon, Wednesday’s meeting was attended by Mofaz, Vice prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon.

‘Under the plan for the Rafah border crossing, that terminal is scheduled to be closed Thursday for a six-month period.

‘During this period, all Palestinians will pass from Gaza to Egypt through a new terminal that will be built at Kerem Shalom, on the Gaza-Israel-Egyptian border. That border crossing will be manned by officials from the PNA, Egypt and Israel.

‘During this time, the Rafah terminal will be upgraded, with the introduction of cameras and surveillance equipment.

‘Also, procedures for a third party monitoring system will be developed and put into place.

‘Britain is expected to be that third party’, the Jerusalem Post predicted.

At the end of the six-month period, goods will continue to go in and out of Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, but people will move back and forth through Rafah.

Sharon will submit plans for regulating the Gaza Strip border crossings to cabinet tomorrow, 11 September.

PNA Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib had warned Tuesday that the Rafah crossing will be ‘a make or break issue.’

He said: ‘If Israel maintains control over borders it will consequently maintain restrictions.

‘This is true whether we speak of the Rafah crossing to the outside world, the Karni crossing to Israeli ports, or the Erez crossing to the West Bank.

‘One important but partial aspect of the future of the Gaza-Egypt border was decided when Israel agreed with Egypt on Egyptian control through an Egyptian army presence on the southern side of the border.’

He added: ‘However, there are still significant differences to be worked out in negotiations.’

Khatib warned: ‘All parties interested in making sure the Gaza disengagement is a step toward stability and political progress should be keen to convince Israel to change its position.’

Kahtib on Wednesday was party to a Palestinian-Israeli meeting on Rafah crossing on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. The meeting ended in failure.

Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs Mohammad Dahlan led the PNA delegation at the meeting.

The Quartet Committee’s (UN, US, EU and Russia) envoy to the disengagement, James Wolfensohn, was shuttling between the parties this week to put together a solution that is acceptable to both sides.

Wolfensohn met Sunday with Shaul Mofaz and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas; he met again Tuesday with Mofaz.

The Quartet Committee is scheduled to meet in New York at the ministerial level on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings.

However no tangible results are expected from the Quartet meeting after the US Administration advised its allies not to pressure Israel, in order to ease Ariel Sharon’s internal pressures on the eve of an upcoming rivalry with Binyamin Netanyahu on the leadership of the ruling Likud party.