Israel shuts Gaza-Egypt border crossing as end of pullout nears
Palestinians decry move as isolating
RAFAH CROSSING, Gaza Strip -- Israel closed Gaza's border crossing with Egypt yesterday, 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.
Israel will complete its military withdrawal from Gaza on Sunday night, defense officials said, setting 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 last night banning all Israeli civilians from entering Gaza.
But Israel and the Palestinians have so far failed to finalize arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt crossing -- fueling fears the overcrowded and poverty-stricken Gaza Strip will be cut off after Israel's exit.
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.
Two weeks ago Israel completed its evacuation of some 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza. One of the final obstacles to the pullout was removed yesterday when Israel's Supreme Court ruled, over the objections of rabbis, that some 20 synagogues in the abandoned settlements can be destroyed. The Settlers Council denounced the decision, saying, ''The remnants of trust in the Supreme Court are being destroyed along with the synagogues of Gush Katif," the main Gaza settlement bloc.
In violence yesterday 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.
Meanwhile, the kidnapped son of slain ex-security chief Moussa Arafat was released early today, two days after he was seized by the attackers who killed his father.
An Associated Press reporter saw Manhal Arafat enter the office of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City early today, accompanied by Palestinian officials.
Dozens of gunmen stormed the Arafat home Wednesday morning, killing the former head of Palestinian security and abducting his son.