The closing of the Rafah terminal on Thursday intensified an argument between Israel and the Palestinians over control of the border, just days before Israel is to turn over the Gaza Strip to Palestinian control.

Israel said the closure would allow a smooth withdrawal of its remaining troops in Gaza early next week, including those stationed on the volatile border area. The six-month period will be used to build a new terminal at Rafah and arrange security details at the crossing, Israeli officials said.

In the meantime, Palestinians will be able to travel to Egypt through Kerem Shalom, an alternate three-way border point, that will be ready in the middle of next week, an Israeli Ports Authority official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the Palestinians said Israel unilaterally shutdown Rafah. Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib, who attended a late-night meeting with Israeli officials at a Jordanian Dead Sea resort, said Israel also refused to guarantee that Rafah - the main artery in and out of the Gaza Strip- would be reopened in six months.

Freedom of movement

"They [Israeli's] want to get out of Rafah, but they don't want to leave us the freedom of movement"

Ghassan Khatib,
Palestinian minister

"They want to get out of Rafah, but they don't want to leave us the freedom of movement," Khatib said, adding that Israeli officials said it would take at least a month to get Kerem Shalom ready for the movement of people.

At Kerem Shalom, Israel will oversee security and passage of people, a main concern for Gazans, who sometimes have to wait weeks and even months to travel abroad due to Israeli security restrictions.
 
The sudden closure of Rafah also raised the heat on a long-standing argument about arrangements at the terminal once Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza. The Palestinians do not want any Israeli presence at the crossing after the pullout, but Israel says it wants to ensure that no arms or fighters enter Gaza.

The sides have been discussing putting foreign monitors at the crossing, but no official agreement has been reached. Two officials close to the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity said Israel has agreed in principle to posting European observers at the crossing.

New terminal

Asaf Shariv, a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel has agreed to an Egyptian proposal to build a new terminal at Rafah. In the meantime, he said, goods and people will move through Kerem Shalom. In six months, people will travel through Rafah and goods will be transferred through Kerem Shalom, Shariv said.

The Israeli's say they are working
on a new border deal with Egypt

No final decision has been made on whether international monitors will be allowed to oversee the crossing, Shariv
said. "There are many options. This is what will be decided in the next six months," he said, adding that in any case, Israel does not want to be present at the crossing.

Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Rafah has been closed for six months to give the Palestinians a chance to get control of the situation on the ground in Gaza.

"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," Regev said.