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The European Union plans to announce the launch of a three-year mission today to help the Palestinian Authority build a credible police force, EU officials said yesterday.

Officials said the decision by the EU foreign ministers will not mean European police officers patrolling the streets of Palestinian cities. Instead, the EU plans to provide 33 law-enforcement experts to advise the PA on how to staff, manage and finance Palestinian police forces. Seven such EU experts, including police officers and specialists in criminal identification, are already advising PA forces in the West Bank and Gaza, and 26 more will join them on January 1, when the mission formally begins.

Seventeen Palestinian staffers will join the EU experts, bringing the mission's total personnel to 50. Initially, the force will be stationed in Gaza and Ramallah, followed by Nablus and other Palestinian cities.

The police mission will be the EU's first security role as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Until now, Europe has only provided the PA with economic aid, totaling some $600 million a year.

The EU ministers will also debate a European role in monitoring the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Both Palestinians and Israelis have asked for such help, but are still sorting out the conditions for it.

"The two sides must agree on a mandate for the EU" before any customs inspectors are deployed at Rafah, EU spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said ahead of the EU ministers' meeting.

She said that EU officials were in negotiations over the weekend with Israeli and Palestinians officials.

Last week, the Israeli cabinet approved the deployment of EU border inspectors at the crossing. However, Israel and the Palestinians disagree over how much authority the inspectors should have. The Palestinians want them to be advisers, while Israel wants them to have final responsibility. Also, citing security concerns, Israel wants to be able to monitor Rafah traffic via closed-circuit television, something the Palestinians reject. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that he hopes an agreement will be reached by November 15.

The aim is to keep the crossing open permanently, to cut the travel time between Gaza and Egypt. Israel closed Rafah for security reasons before leaving Gaza in September. Since then, the Palestinians have reopened it briefly for hardship cases, such as Gazans seeking medical treatment, but PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to reopen it permanently only with Israeli consent.