JERUSALEM – Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz hopes to reopen the Gaza Strip's (search) main gateway to the outside world within two weeks, Israeli security officials said Sunday, a move that would be crucial to reviving Gaza's impoverished economy.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss policy, said Israeli and Palestinian teams had stepped up contacts in an effort to sew up a border-monitoring agreement. Reopening the border would require Israeli Cabinet approval.
Israel closed the Rafah crossing to Egypt shortly before withdrawing from Gaza in September, saying it would stay shut for six months to allow for new security and customs arrangements. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) agreed to reopen it only with Israeli consent.
But Palestinians chafed under the notion that the vital passage would be shut for so long, and together with international Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn have sought to get it opened.
In a breakthrough last week, the Israeli Cabinet agreed to allow European inspectors to work at the Rafah crossing, a major step toward giving Palestinians freedom of movement without Israeli controls for the first time in four decades.
But Israel and the Palestinians now disagree over how much authority the inspectors should have. The Palestinians consider them to be only advisers, but Israel wants the Europeans to have final responsibility.
Israel, citing security concerns, also wants to be able to monitor Rafah traffic via closed-circuit television, a demand the Palestinians reject.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped an agreement can be reached by Nov. 15.
"I think the issue of the cameras is one of the issues Israel has to drop," Erekat said. "Once you have a third party, Israel doesn't have to run the terminal by remote control."
Negotiators planned to meet again Monday, possibly together with Wolfensohn, Erekat said.
Wolfensohn complained in a recent letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) that Israel was dragging its feet in the talks, "almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal."
Rafah is key to the economic recovery of the coastal territory, which has been devastated by nearly five years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
The Palestinians say stable arrangements at Rafah, as well as Gaza's main cargo crossing on the Israel border, are needed to allow the Palestinians to export produce and other goods, ensure the free flow of people and encourage foreign investment.
Reopening the border also would give Abbas a badly needed boost heading into Jan. 25 parliamentary elections. The Islamic militant group Hamas is expected to pose a strong challenge to Abbas' supporters, and Gazans have so far seen few real benefits from Israel's departure.
In another development, Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said Israel had approved a plan for Egypt to supply the Palestinian Authority's security forces with tens of thousands of bullets before the Palestinian elections.
Israel opposes giving the Palestinians more weapons, saying they have in the past ended up in the hands of extremists. But Ramon said Israel agreed to let the Palestinian Authority receive ammunition to help its security forces impose order ahead of the January elections.
Palestinian security forces have been severely weakened by the fighting with Israel, and chaos has grown in the Palestinian areas in recent months.
The bullets are to be delivered in the coming days, the Israeli newspaper Maariv said.