EU foreign ministers planned to give their formal approval yesterday to launch a mission to monitor the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the 25 EU ministers would also assess the latest political upheaval in the Israeli government, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to leave his Liked Party, form a new political movement and push for quick elections.
The EU hopes the move will not disrupt attempts at peace with the Palestinians. The bloc hopes to send a first contingent of 12 officers and experts later this week to a Palestinian Authority-controlled outpost to prepare for the official start of their mission on Friday, when the Rafah border crossing opens.
In total, between 50 and 70 officers and experts will be sent as part of the mission, which will be a first for Europe in the region, boosting its presence beyond its role as top donor to the Palestinians.
Israelis and Palestinians agreed to the opening of the crossing during talks last week, brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Solana.
The EU mission is to be headed by an Italian police general whose job will be to monitor the crossing to allay Israeli fears that the checkpoint could be used to smuggle militants or weapons into Gaza. The monitors will act as mediators between the Israelis, who will keep tabs on the border via closed-circuit television, 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, will referee any disputes.
The foreign ministers were also to consider sending a formal EU observer mission to monitor Palestinian parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 25. They will also discuss further reconstruction aid the EU could offer to rebuild Gaza, including the airport there, which was destroyed during five years of fighting with the Israelis.
Meanwhile, EU defense ministers intended to approve a plan yesterday to open up their US$35 billion arms industry to increased cross-border competition.
By allowing companies to compete more in each others markets, the EU hopes to secure lower costs for Europe's tight defense budgets and encourage a restructuring of the continent's fractured industry so it becomes more competitive on world markets.