BRUSSELS, Belgium – European Union foreign ministers gave final approval Monday to a 50- to 70-person mission to monitor the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt — a move they hope will help foster peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The first 20 observers will be in place by Friday morning when the border is expected to open as part of what British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called a "historic deal" brokered last week between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The EU's involvement on the ground in the Middle East marks a change from its traditional role as Israel's biggest trading partner and the principal aid donor to the Palestinians.
In a declaration, the EU foreign ministers said the border opening is "essential for promoting peaceful economic development" and "fundamental to improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
"The priority now is to ensure that the commitments made in it (the agreement) are translated into reality," the EU ministers said.
Italian Maj. Gen. Piero Pistolese will head up the mission, which will also include police officers from Germany, Spain and other EU nations, officials said.
The monitors will act as mediators between the Israelis, who will keep tabs on the border via closed-circuit TV, and the Palestinians running the crossing. The mission will also train the Palestinians to run a professional customs checkpoint.
The Israelis can object to letting someone cross, but the Palestinians will have ultimate authority over who passes. The Europeans, through a joint situation room that will include Israelis and Palestinians, will presumably referee any disputes.
The opening of the Rafah crossing will be the first time Palestinians will have control over a border. The EU hopes the opening will be part of a wider effort to rebuild Gaza's economy, which was destroyed over years of fighting and restrictions imposed by Israelis to prevent militants and weapons from entering the territory.
Israel pulled its military and settlers out of Gaza in September, ending more than 30 years of occupation there.