Rafah monitors threaten to leave following extensive border closures

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JERUSALEM: U.S. and European security officials have told Israel that European states may withdraw their monitors from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt unless Israel agrees to keep it open. Rafah is the Palestinians only crossing to the outside world that does not require passing through Israel. It has been closed for all but 12 days since June 25 when Gaza gunmen seized an Israeli soldier and killed two others in a cross-border raid.

Israel agreed to open the Gaza-Egypt border crossing at regular intervals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a U.S. State Department official said Thursday.

We are encouraged by this decision, the first toward restoration of normal operations at the crossing, said McCormack, who accompanied U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her trip to the region.

The Rafah border terminal was opened for a second day in a row Thursday, EU observers said. The Rafah terminal is open today from 8:00 a.m. (06:00 GMT) until 4:00 p.m., Maria Telleria, a spokeswoman for EU monitors at the crossing, told AFP. It will likely also be open on Saturday and Sunday, she said, adding that 1,770 people had passed through the crossing on Wednesday. In a letter to Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, the officials said Rafah s continued closure could well prompt EU member states to seriously question the desirability of maintaining their monitoring mission there. The monitors are required for the crossing to function under a deal brokered last year by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in the region again on Wednesday for talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The withdrawal of the monitors would amount to a diplomatic slap for Israel as well as the United States. The Sept. 29 letter – signed by U.S. security coordinator Lieutenant-General Keith W. Dayton and EU monitoring mission chief Pietro Pistolese – warned Israel that Rafah s frequent closure would also make it very hard to convince the EU to send monitors to Karni, Gaza s main commercial crossing, as Washington has proposed. After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, Rice said she would try to make sure that some of those crossings are indeed open longer and more frequently so that economic activity can return, although she offered no details. Rafah was opened for some travelers on Wednesday and Thursday, but the European monitors said it was unclear when it would open thereafter and for how long. Rice personally brokered the deal last year to boost the flow of people and goods into and out of Gaza after Israel s withdrawal from the impoverished coastal strip. The fact that the members of the [monitoring] mission have been prevented from performing their duties for three months is not in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, Dayton and Pistolese wrote. The Rafah crossing is not a security risk. Senior officials in the Hamas-led Palestinian government have used the crossing to bring millions of dollars in cash into Gaza to get around a Western aid embargo. A U.S. plan for Karni envisages bolstering security at the crossing, deploying 90 foreign monitors there and expanding Abbas presidential guard. Israeli security officials have welcomed the Karni proposal but said it would remain on hold until the soldier captured by Palestinian militants was freed. Israel has shut Karni frequently this year because of what it says are threats from Palestinian militants. Aid groups say the closures at Karni have worsened humanitarian conditions in densely populated Gaza, home to 1.4 million people. A European official said pulling the monitors out of Rafah was one option being looked at ahead of the current agreement for the crossing expiring in November. Other options include relocating the monitors, now based in Israel, to Egypt. Agencies

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