EU Scales Back Gaza-Egypt Border Monitoring Mission

Rafah terminal closed since Hamas' Gaza takeover; Hamas men seize chemicals from Gaza college.

The EU is scaling back its monitoring mission at the Gaza-Egypt border, which has been closed since the start of bloody factional fighting that led to Hamas' takeover of the coastal strip, a spokeswoman said Saturday.

The cutback in personnel signals that the European monitors don't expect the Rafah terminal on the border, Gaza's only gateway to the world, to reopen anytime soon.

The monitors were deployed under a November 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, following Israel's pullout from Gaza.

Under the deal, the border was controlled by Palestinian and Egyptian security forces, with European monitors deployed on the Palestinian side to prevent smuggling of weapons and militants.

Also Saturday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his movement opposes opening the Israel-Gaza border crossing of Kerem Shalom.

"This is a conspiracy against our people by Israel and the pro-American leadership in Ramallah," Barhoum said in a reference to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad's government.

In Gaza City, however, about 1,500 Hamas supporters, most of them flag-waving school children, marched to protest the continued closure of the border.

The Gaza-Egypt border has been closed since June 9, when the final phase of fighting between Hamas and forces allied with moderate Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas erupted in Gaza. Hamas defeated Abbas' forces, who had held carried out key missions, including border controls. Instead of Abbas' Presidential Guards, Hamas gunmen now control the Rafah terminal.

"In the current situation, it's pointless to keep all 87 members of the EU mission in the area," said mission spokeswoman Maria Telleria. She would not say how many members of the mission are leaving in coming weeks, but added that enough will stay behind to operate the border should it open at short notice. She said between 15 and 18 monitors are needed for a shift at the Rafah terminal.

"I can't foresee in the near future that the border will be opened on permanent basis," she said.

The said the mission's managers and equipment will stay. Following the June 9 closure of the border, some 6,000 Palestinians trying to return to Gaza have been stranded in Egypt.

Also Saturday, about 30 armed men from a Hamas-led security force entered Gaza City's Al-Azhar University and seized 80 bags with chemicals from the agriculture college, the dean said.

It was not immediately clear why the chemicals were taken. The spokesman for Hamas' Executive Force militia was not immediately available for comment.

The dean, Jawad Wadi, said he called the office of the Hamas ruler of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, to file a complaint. Haniyeh was deposed as prime minister by Abbas after the Hamas takeover.

Al-Azhar has ties to Abbas' Fatah movement.

This is a very dangerous, Wadi said. The university is a place for education and this is not the way to deal with the university.