GAZA,(Reuters) – An advance party of European Union monitors began preparations on Thursday for the opening of a Gaza border terminal that will allow Palestinians greater freedom of movement to and from the tiny coastal territory.
The inauguration of Rafah terminal on the Egyptian border, scheduled for Friday with operations beginning a day later, is seen by Palestinians as a step towards statehood following Israel”s withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.
The United States, which brokered the terminal deal amid Israeli security concerns, hopes it will help revive Gaza”s ailing economy and restart Middle East peace talks.
"We feel we are going to make a very important activity in order to develop this country and to give a great support to you," Pietro Pistolese, an Italian paramilitary police general who will head the EU team at Rafah, told reporters in English.
He said only a skeleton crew of monitors had arrived so far, meaning Rafah would be opened for four hours a day at first.
"But we will increase quickly the number of hours in order to enlarge the period of time in which the Palestinian population can cross the border," Pistolese said, adding that, at full deployment, there will be some 70 monitors at Rafah.
Israel, which fears arms and foreign fighters will try to reach Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai and bolster Palestinian militants waging 5-year-old revolt, agreed to the EU oversight at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Under a compromise deal sealed by Rice on Nov. 15, Israeli and Palestinian security officers at an EU-run control room a few kilometers (miles) from Rafah will use remote-control cameras to watch those coming and going through the terminal.
If the Israelis want someone stopped or detained, they must ask their Palestinian counterparts to do so. If the Palestinians refuse, an appeal can be made to the EU team of police experts while the person in question is held up for six hours.
"There is no Israeli presence. The European presence is not a replacement for the Palestinian presence and does not represent the Israeli side," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The agreement could give Abbas a boost in January parliamentary elections in the face of a strong challenge from Hamas, a militant Islamic group sworn to Israel”s destruction.
Hamas has denounced the Rafah deal as hurtful to Palestinian national prestige.