RAFAH CROSSING, Gaza Strip – Israel closed Gaza”s border crossing with Egypt on Thursday, days before completing its pullout from the coastal strip. Palestinians said the move shut off Gaza from the world, but Israel promised to build a new gateway for the Palestinians.
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.
The withdrawal sets the stage for what”s expected to be an emotional Palestinian takeover of the lands formerly occupied by Jewish settlers. Israel”s military issued an order Thursday night banning all Israeli civilians from entering Gaza and demolished its liaison offices in Gaza hours later.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the withdrawal will be completed by Monday, three days ahead of schedule.
"According to the plan I authorized yesterday … on Monday the 12th of the month no Israeli army soldier will remain in the boundaries of the Gaza Strip," Mofaz told Israel”s Army Radio.
However, a dispute over whether to destroy synagogues in Jewish settlements evacuated last month could delay the pullout, Mofaz said.
Over the objections of rabbis, Israel”s Supreme Court on Thursday lifted an order barring the army from demolishing the synagogues. The Cabinet is to decide Sunday whether to demolish the holy buildings, Mofaz said, adding that he will vote against the destruction.
If the Cabinet votes to demolish the synagogues, the pullout will be completed on Tuesday. Israel was originally scheduled to complete its withdrawal on Thursday.
Homes and other buildings in the settlements were demolished after Israel evacuated some 8,500 Jewish settlers two weeks ago.
Israel and the Palestinians have so far failed to finalize arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt crossing — raising fears the Gaza Strip will be cut off after Israel”s exit.
For the 1.3 million Palestinians who live in this impoverished and densely populated strip of land, freedom to travel is vital. Without it, they say, Israel”s withdrawal means little.
The sides have widely divergent concepts. The Palestinians want no Israeli presence at the border, while the Israelis insist on controlling their own security.
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.
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 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 several months, perhaps six, 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.
Two officials close to the negotiations, who asked that their names not be used because the talks are continuing, 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 sought 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 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.
He 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, stranding thousands in Egypt.
Ismail Daoud of Gaza 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."
Daoud, 54, last left Gaza in June. He spent two nights in a waiting hall at the crossing, using newspapers and cardboard he had scavenged as a mattress.