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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

                                                Story 25
Prediction 14: Possible EU troop movements to Israel and/or the Middle East

Israelis warm to security role for EU on Gaza's border with Egypt

By Stephen Castle in Brussels and Eric Silver in Jerusalem

The European Union may be given a security role at the border between Egypt and Gaza in a significant escalation of its involvement in the Middle East peace process.

 But speculation of an armed presence has been heightened by the need to provide security for the crossing at Rafah.

Although Israel has in the past opposed the involvement of third parties in policing frontier crossings, sources in Jerusalem have confirmed that the option is being discussed and that talks have included details of a possible EU role.

Discreet negotiations on border security, which follow Israel's withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years, are expected to take place in the next few days.

A decision to invite the EU to help supervise the crossing would underline a shift of attitude by the Israeli government, which has traditionally viewed Brussels with suspicion. Some diplomats believe the Israelis now think that an EU involvement could demonstrate the scale of the security problems to skeptical European governments.

European sources say that, after a public offer of help by the EU last month, it is up to the parties themselves to say what type of assistance they want.

An EU role could range from technical assistance or the provision of equipment such as X-ray scanners for cargo to an expanded police or border guard mission. But speculation of an armed presence has been heightened by the need to provide security for the crossing at Rafah.

The Israelis, the Palestinians and the Egyptians have agreed that the Rafah crossing will be closed for six months to enable the parties to find a workable solution that takes account of Israel's security demands.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has made it clear that, even after the chaos of recent days, Israeli troops will not return to the Philadelphi corridor separating Egypt and Gaza.

Although Israel has opposed third-party involvement in the past, it is now being more flexible behind the scenes than in its public declarations.

Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said: "We have to find solutions that are workable and prevent the Rafah crossing becoming a place where explosives, weapons and cash for the terrorist organisations can enter.

"We know there are people out there who will want to strengthen Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It's important that this doesn't happen. The challenge is to provide maximum opportunity for freedom of movement and at the same time to calibrate the all-too-real security risk."

On the issue of possible EU involvement, Mr Regev said only: "Up to now, Israel has not agreed to third-party deployment. We have yet to finalise what the arrangements would be."

Sa'eb Erakat, who heads the Palestinian negotiating team, said: "We don't object to EU supervision. We have offered to have a third party involved. The Europeans are acceptable to us. We want to make sure we have freedom of movement for vehicles, persons and goods without endangering Israel's security. Israel has not been very responsive so far, but we expect to talk to them in the next few days".

The French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, said last week that the EU had offered to help oversee entry and exit points into the coastal strip, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians.

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