Palestinian negotiators- Israel must open the gates to the Gaza Strip

Monday, April 25, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian negotiators said Sunday they want Israel to allow movement in and out of the Gaza Strip after its withdrawal from the territory this summer, and suggested international monitors could control borders to allay Israel's security concerns.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, said that before he travels to the United States in May he might meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Bush administration has urged Israelis and Palestinians to do more to coordinate the Gaza pullout, initially envisioned by Israel as a unilateral move.

Abbas went from the West Bank to Gaza on Sunday, a day after appointing three new security chiefs, another step in his internal reform program. The new chiefs are veterans, but with the appointments, Abbas has streamlined the unwieldy security apparatus, cutting down the number of branches to three.

Also Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided to extend a blanket closure of the West Bank and Gaza for another week, until the end of the Passover holiday. The decision came because of intelligence warnings about plans by Palestinian militants to carry out attacks, the army said.

Israel's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from Gaza and four West Bank settlement says border arrangements will remain in place. Israel fears free movement would enable militants to smuggle weapons into Gaza and launch attacks on Israel from Gaza.

Israel currently controls all crossings in and out of Gaza -- the Rafah terminal linking Gaza and Egypt, as well as the Karni, Kissufim and Erez crossings into Israel. During more than four years of fighting, Israel has imposed stringent travel restrictions on Gazans, who can only leave the strip with special permits.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the sides should focus on coordinating the pullout. "Bringing up different issues now, changing the focus, is not necessarily going to be productive," he said.

The Palestinians fear that after Israel evacuates 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and withdraws its troops, it will isolate the 140-square-mile strip with 1.3 million Palestinian residents. Gaza is surrounded by a heavily fortified fence.

Palestinian negotiators said Sunday that Israel must allow free movement in and out of Gaza, relinquish control of the Rafah crossing and establish a "safe passage" between Gaza and the West Bank.

The demands were also contained in a four-page paper on Palestinian preparations for the pullout, presented to senior U.S. envoys several days ago and obtained by The Associated Press. In the document, the Palestinian Authority writes it seeks "full ... sovereignty over the land borders, regional waters and air space of these areas, including securing an international presence."

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of coordinating the withdrawal with Israel, said that "there will be no separation between the West Bank and Gaza, and we will not allow the Gaza Strip to be turned into a prison," Dahlan told reporters.

The Palestinian National Security Adviser, Jibril Rajoub, suggested the Palestinians might refuse to coordinate the withdrawal if the demands were rejected. In an interview with the Palestinian daily Al Quds, Rajoub raised the possibility that international monitors supervise the Rafah crossing.

Israeli troops currently patrol the Gaza-Egypt border, controlling a narrow, heavily fortified strip at the southern end of Gaza. Israel is negotiating security arrangements along the border with Egypt, and has not yet decided whether to leave the patrol road, a flashpoint of fighting in the past four years.

Palestinian militants have repeatedly dug tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle weapons.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians heckled the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Holy Land, Eireneos, as he led the Palm Sunday procession, demanding his resignation and holding up signs reading "Shame on you." Police said protesters also threw empty water bottles.

The protesters, many of them Christians, want the patriarch to step down because of allegations that he was involved in the sale of church property in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem to Jewish organizations.

Church officials have said they are investigating the allegations but have yet to reveal what they discovered.

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