EU foreign ministers to give their formal approval

European Union foreign ministers plan to give their formal approval Monday to launch a mission to monitor the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the 25 EU ministers would also assess the latest political upheaval in the Israeli government, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to leave his Liked Party, form a new political movement and push for quick elections.

The EU hopes the move will not disrupt attempts at peace with the Palestinians.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy representative, told reporters that the bloc hopes to send a first contingent of 12 officers and experts later this week to a Palestinian Authority-controlled outpost to prepare for the official start of their mission Friday, when the Rafah border crossing opens.

"The forces deployed to Rafah will be on time. We are going to comply with all our commitments," Solana said.

In total, between 50 and 70 officers and experts will be sent as part of the mission, which will be a first for Europe in the region, boosting its presence beyond its role as top donor to the Palestinians.

Israelis and Palestinians agreed to the opening of the crossing during talks last week, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Solana.

The EU mission is to be headed by an Italian police general whose job will be to monitor the crossing to allay Israeli fears that the checkpoint could be used to smuggle militants or weapons into Gaza. The monitors will act as mediators between the Israelis, who will keep tabs on the border via closed-circuit television, and the Palestinians running the crossing. The mission will also train the Palestinians to run a professional customs checkpoint.

The Israelis can object to letting someone cross, but the Palestinians will have ultimate authority over who passes. The Europeans, through a joint situation room that will include the Israelis and the Palestinians, will presumably referee any disputes. The foreign ministers were also to consider sending a formal EU observer mission to monitor Palestinian parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 25. They will also discuss further reconstruction aid the EU could offer to rebuild Gaza, including the airport there, which was destroyed during five years of fighting with the Israelis. The opening of the Rafah crossing will be the first time Palestinians will have control over a border. The EU hopes the opening will be part of a wider effort to rebuild Gaza's economy which was destroyed over years of fighting and restrictions imposed by Israelis to prevent militants and weapons from entering the territory, reports the AP. I.L.

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