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Israel Closes Gaza-Egypt Border

Israel (search) on Thursday closed the vital Gaza (search)-Egypt border crossing just days before completing its military pullout from the coastal strip.

Palestinians derided the move as a unilateral Israeli action that blocks their main gateway to the outside world. But the Israelis said its purpose was just the opposite: to give time to build ae has agreed in principle to allow foreign inspectors at the border to ensure security without Israeli interference.

Israel said the closure would allow a smooth withdrawal of its remaining troops in Gaza early next week, including those stationed in the volatile border area. Israeli officials said it will take about six months to build a new terminal at the so-called Rafah crossing and arrange security details.

In the meantime, Palestinians will be able to travel to Egypt through Kerem Shalom (search), an alternate three-way border point, which will be ready next week, an Israeli Ports Authority official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal statement has not been released.

But the Palestinians said Israel unilaterally shut down Rafah. Cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib, who attended a late-night meeting with Israeli officials at a Jordanian Dead Sea (search) 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.

"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 militants 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 declined to be identified because talks are ongoing, said Israel has agreed in principle to posting European observers at the crossing.

Asaf Shariv, a top adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), 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.

He added that no final decision has been made on whether international monitors will be allowed to oversee the crossing. "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 will be closed for six months to give the Palestinians a chance to get control of the situation on the ground in Gaza.

Chaos and violence have engulfed the Gaza Strip in recent months as rival Palestinian factions vie for control of the coastal area after Israel's withdrawal. The peak came early Wednesday when masked men gunned down Moussa Arafat (search), a former security chief and a cousin of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search).

"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.