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Egypt, Israel Move Close to Agreement on Gaza Border - 2004-06-07


Egypt and Israel nearing agreement to allow more Egyptian troops to patrol the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The move is aimed at improving security in the area to prepare for a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Under the plan Egypt would add about 100 soldiers to its border patrols. The number of soldiers Egypt can have on the border is limited by the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. But officials say the number can be changed by mutual agreement.

That was the news from a closed-door meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The meeting followed Sunday's vote in the Israeli cabinet to endorse a plan to remove all Israeli troops and settlements from Gaza. The cabinet did not say when that will happen.

Mr. Shalom's spokeswoman, Batshava Genut, characterized the minister's discussions with the Egyptian president, saying security was the top issue.

"What role Egypt will be playing in the region to help with security,? Ms. Genut said. ?Minister Shalom made it very clear that they were working for months now to find a formula to give Egypt the ability to have more armed personnel in the Egyptian part of Rafah. Obviously, this armed personnel would have to maintain security, and specifically to stop the smugglers who are moving weapons through tunnels from the Egyptian side to the Gaza side of Rafah."

Ms. Genut said agreement was also reached Monday on the formation of an Egyptian-Israeli committee for cooperation that will work on economic, security, and political issues.

Egyptian cooperation is seen as crucial if Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza because there are fears a security vacuum could allow Palestinian terrorist groups to seize control of the area.

Last month, Israel conducted an extensive security operation in Gaza, near the Egyptian border, in which more than 40 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers died. Israeli forces destroyed many Palestinian homes, which it said had been used as terrorist bases, or to hide tunnels used to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt.

Senior Egyptian government officials say President Mubarak is making three demands for continued Egyptian cooperation with any Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip. They say the president wants a full Israeli withdrawal, carried out under the guidelines of the Roadmap peace plan and that the pullout be part of a larger plan that will lead to Palestinian self-determination.

A senior aide to President Mubarak, Osama el-Baz says Egypt is not acting for the sake of Israel. Rather, he said, Egypt has its own vision for the role it can play to help improve the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

During Monday's meeting the Israeli foreign minister also asked Mr. Mubarak to take a leading role in helping Israel improve its relations with the rest of the Arab world. Relations between Egypt and Israel have been severely strained since the second Palestinian intifada began almost four-years ago. Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel in 2000 to protest what Cairo called the inhumane treatment of Palestinian citizens.

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