EU Touts New Options to Ease Gaza Blockade

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss ways for softening the blockade on the Gaza Strip following Israel's raid on the flotilla last week in which nine activists were killed.

Ahead of the meeting, France, Britain and Spain distributed position papers on steps the EU can take to provide more aid to the Strip while ensuring that no arms are smuggled in.

The French calls for the reopening of the Rafah crossing under EU control, a regime that had been in place until June 2007, when Hamas took over the territory.

The paper by the French Foreign Ministry states that in exchange for a reopening of the Rafah crossing, Hamas will be willing to surrender control over the passage to EU inspectors and Palestinian Authority officials from Ramallah.

The French proposal is based on agreements between Egypt and Hamas; the group would set up a checkpoint several hundred meters inland from the Rafah crossing. There its officials would be able to supervise entry to and exit from the territory.

In Israel there is great skepticism about the French proposal's chances for success because it is assumed that Hamas will not agree to surrender control over the Rafah crossing.

The French also propose that warships of EU countries patrol the Gaza shoreline to prevent ships smuggling arms from getting through.

A possibility was also raised by Britain and France for the creation in Cyprus of an inspection point where ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza would dock for checks by EU officials. The inspectors would ensure that no arms or terrorists are on board, whether the ships are traveling to or from the Strip.

The British proposal expands on the French one and recommends that Israel agree to increase the number of UN development projects in the Strip, which would allow the importing of building materials, which the Israel Defense Forces opposes for security reasons.

The proposal also calls for Palestinian and European inspectors at the Karni crossing into Israel, so that exports from Gaza can resume.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed skepticism at the chances of the proposals being implemented because not all sides, especially Israel, currently agree that ships would be allowed to unload humanitarian aid at Gaza's port.

Meanwhile, the proposals have been presented to the Egyptians. Although the position papers are not yet official, President Hosni Mubarak is said to view them positively.

However, Egypt is not party to the 2005 agreement that had European inspectors in charge of the Rafah crossing. It has since used this fact to prevent aid from beingimported into Gaza through the Sinai crossing.

On Monday, Egypt prevented an aid convoy organized by Egyptian parliamentarians from crossing into the Strip through Rafah.

Israel is only willing to see the Rafah arrangement resumed if the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas is responsible for the controls, along with EU inspectors.

In the past, Hamas has insisted on control over the crossings into the Strip, asserting its control over the territory and challenging the Palestinian Authority and Fatah's claim to the enclave. It is unclear what the group's response would be to the French-British proposal.

Egypt is keen to find a solution to the transfer of aid because it is concerned about continued efforts by outsiders to break through the blockade. In addition to fears of Iranian influence in the territory, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries considered part of a moderate coalition are upset by Turkish influence in the area. They are unhappy that Ankara is using the Palestinians' plight to undermine their position in the Middle East.

Analysts in Egypt point to the Turkish-Iranian-Syrian axis as threatening Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in so far as it is embarrassing them on the Palestinian issue.

The recent declaration by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Hamas is not a terrorist but rather a resistance organization similar to Hezbollah was received with strong criticism by Egyptian parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party. They said the Turkish stance should be viewed as a threat to PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.