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French Version

Solana hopes Gaza's Rafah crossing will reopen soon

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday he hoped a crucial crossing between Gaza and the outside world, which has been closed by Israel for most of the past four months, would be reopened on a regular basis soon.

European Union officials who monitor the Rafah crossing between Gaza ...

European Union officials who monitor the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt have threatened to abandon their mission if Israel keeps closing the passage for what it says are security reasons.

"We hope to have in a few days or weeks - we hope days - a response on a renewal of our presence in Rafah," Solana said at a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni after they met in Tel Aviv.

The Rafah passage, previously controlled by Israel, was handed to EU-supervised Palestinian control last year under a US-brokered accord.

Israel has kept the crossing closed for all but 12 days since the capture of an Israeli soldier on June 25. Livni said while there needed to be talk about operational issues at Rafah, Israel was happy with the EU's involvement there, the first time it has accepted a European role in security aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"We are going to negotiate with the Europeans on the future terms," she said. "But we are very positive about the role of Europe in monitoring the Rafah passage."

She added Israel would be willing to dismantle West Bank settlements in the future. "Israel means business ... We are willing to dismantle settlements where needed."

"Unfortunately the situation on the ground right now in the Gaza Strip sends the wrong message to Israel," Livni said

Solana arrived in Israel Wednesday for meetings with top Israeli and Palestinian officials to test their appetites for restarting the stagnant peace process. It is the first leg of a six-day tour of the Middle East, meant to assess the political mood of key players in the region.

"We have the feeling that this is now the situation of stalling," Solana said Thursday. "We would like very much if we could see ... some movement put in place."

Solana was due to meet later in the day with Defense Minister Amir Peretz before traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Solana was expected to push Abbas and his Fatah Movement to boost efforts to form a unity government with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

EU officials were doubtful Solana's trip would yield breakthroughs, acknowledging early on in the trip that divisions between Israelis and Palestinians remain as deep as ever.

Meanwhile, the leader of Hamas, who lives in exile in Syria, is expected to travel to Egypt soon for talks on a prisoner swap with Israel that could see hundreds of Palestinians freed in exchange for an Israeli soldier.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, who is based in Gaza, said Khaled Meshaal, the Islamist group's political chief, was set to travel to Cairo for what could prove "decisive discussions" but added that there was no timeframe for the visit.

Hamas and its allies have demanded the release of up to 1,400 Palestinians, including minors and women, held by Israel in exchange for Shalit. Israel has said Hamas must first release Shalit and then it will consider any prisoner release.

Barhoum said he could not predict when a deal might be struck but added: "The ball is now in Israel's court."

Meanwhile, Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinians in separate incidents in Gaza Thursday, Palestinian witnesses and hospital officials said.

A police officer was shot near Khan Younis, a town in southern Gaza, after Israeli troops entered a village and exchanged fire with Palestinian security forces, witnesses said. Doctors said the man died later from his wounds.

In a later incident near Khan Younis, an unarmed Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops.

In the north part of the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man near the town of Beit Hanoun, residents said. Witnesses said the man was catching birds on farmland when the soldiers opened fire.

An army spokesman said soldiers in the area identified three people approaching the border in a suspicious way.

"The soldiers called to them to stop. When they didn't stop, the soldiers opened fire and identified hitting at least one of them," he said.

Beirut,10 24 2006
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