Palestinians Demand Control of Gaza Crossing

Israel (search) must relinquish control over some crossings, allow free movement in and out of the Gaza Strip (search) and establish a "safe passage" to the West Bank as part of its planned withdrawal this summer, Palestinian negotiators said Sunday, raising the idea of international supervision.

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 (search) writes it seeks "full ... sovereignty over the land borders, regional waters and air space of these areas, including securing an international presence."

Israel has staunchly opposed relinquishing control over crossings into Gaza, amid concerns that Palestinian terrorists could use free passage to bring large amounts of weapons into the territory. Israeli Foreign Ministrty spokesman Mark Regev said Sunday that raising such issues now would only divert the two sides from what he said should be their focus — coordinating the Gaza pullout.

Also Sunday, a new Palestinian police chief, Brig. Gen. Alaa Husni, took up his post. On Saturday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had appointed Husni and two other security chiefs in a major step toward internal reform long demanded by the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially envisioned the withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank as a unilateral step, but both sides have come under increasing U.S. pressure to coordinate. In recent days, U.S. envoys met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, followed by Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The Palestinians fear that after Israel evacuates 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and withdraws its troops by the fall, it will isolate the 140-square-mile (360-square-kilometer) strip with 1.3 million Palestinian residents. Gaza is surrounded by a heavily fortified fence.

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.

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of coordinating the withdrawal with Israel, said Sunday that Israel must ease movement in and out of Gaza. Earlier this week, Dahlan met with the Israeli defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.

"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 in Gaza. "We do not consider the withdrawal real unless we have total control over all the areas, borders and border crossings."

The Palestinian National Security Adviser, Jibril Rajoub, suggested the Palestinians might refuse to coordinate the withdrawal if the demands were rejected.

"The Palestinian leadership is ready to coordinate the withdrawal ... if it includes basic conditions," Rajoub told the Palestinian daily Al Quds. "One of the most important conditions is that the withdrawal be complete and comprehensive ... and that Israel withdraws from the international border crossings, and that there be no Israeli presence on the Egyptian-Palestinian border."

Rajoub raised the possibility that a third party could supervise the Rafah crossing, an idea that was previously raised in a World Bank report on the future of Gaza. The World Bank has said free movement of people and goods will be vital for rebuilding Gaza's tattered economy.

According to the Palestinian document on withdrawal preparations, the Palestinians also seek to renew safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank that would allow Palestinians move freely between the two unconnected territories by crossing through Israel.

Such a passage was in place for about a year, with Palestinians traveling in special buses between the West Bank and Gaza. Traffic came to a halt with the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000.

Israeli troops currently patrol the Gaza-Egypt border, controlling a narrow, heavily fortified strip at the southern end of Gaza. Israel is still negotiating security arrrangements 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 response, Israeli troops have frequently raided the Palestinians' Rafah refugee camp near the border to find and destroy the entrances to tunnels.

Dahlan, meanwhile, said that 95 percent of the Gaza land Israel plans to leave is state land, while 5 percent is privately owned by Palestinians. He said the private land would be returned if ownership is proven.

He said the fate of the buildings and homes in the Gaza settlements, estimated at about 2,200, would be determined by a Palestinian committee. The houses in the settlements are cottages, and Palestinians have said some of the homes might have to be destroyed to make room for high-rises. Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated areas.

The three new Palestinian security chiefs appointed Saturday are Husni; Maj. Gen. Tareq Abu Rajab, the head of General Intelligence; and Brig. Gen. Suleiman, the head of National Security.

The United States and Israel have long urged Abbas to carry out sweeping reforms, hoping they would become more effective in restoring order and reining in militants. However, Abbas has said he would try to co-opt, not confront the armed groups.

In naming the new chiefs, all veterans of the security services, Abbas took a last step in streamlining nine security branches, which under the late Yasser Arafat had overlapping tasks and authorities.

Abbas has also signed off on the forced retirement of two leading security figures, who are to be among 1,150 eased out under a retirement plan announced earlier this month. The two are Moussa Arafat, the head of the national security forces in the Gaza Strip, and Amin al-Hindi, the head of General Intelligence.