JERUSALEM – Israel’s parliament was set on Wednesday to approve an historic plan for Egyptian border guards to patrol along the Gaza Strip border after the departure of the last troops from the territory next month.
The deal, which has taken months to negotiate, will see 750 lightly armed officers fan out to stop weapons being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, allowing all Israeli troops to withdraw completely from the territory.
It will be first paramilitary deployment on the border since the 1967 Middle East war when Israel seized the Gaza Strip, then administered by Egypt, and the Sinai peninsula.
The 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty sanctions only lightly armed police in the demilitarized zone, since Israel withdrew from the Sinai.
Under the so-called Philadelphi agreement, Egyptians will take up positions along the 14-kilometre (eight-mile) stretch facing the Philadelphi buffer zone, which flanks the border and is controlled by the Israeli army.
With the deployment already approved by Israeli ministers, support from parliament is seen as a mere formality, before senior Egyptian and Israeli military officials sign the deal.
Public radio predicted that the deal would be approved by a vote of 70-45 in the afternoon session.
Israel had originally planned to keep a small contingent of soldiers at the Rafah border post until the Egyptian deal was finalised amid radically improved relations between the two rather uneasy allies in recent months.
Ahead of the parliamentary vote, Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was going over the security specifics of the deal with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, a senior Israeli official said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s envoy was also expected to brief the prime minister on his meetings with leaders of militant factions during a visit to the Gaza Strip to shore up a de facto Palestinian truce.
A radical offshoot of Abbas’s ruling Fatah party has said it will not disarm after Israel leaves Gaza despite a warning from the Palestinian Authority that armed groups will not be tolerated.
“We will continue to brandish our weapons in the face of the occupation (Israel) as Gaza is only the first step towards the liberation of all of theland of Palestine,” a statement from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said.
Israel has conditioned any progress on the stalled Middle East peace process by demanding that the Palestinians clamp down on all armed factions following the Gaza pullout.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who savaged disengagement as destined to turn Gaza into a “terrorist base” accused Sharon of endangering Israel’s hold on Jerusalem as he began campaigning for the leadership of the main governing Likud party.
On a symbolic tour of Maale Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement, the hawkish former premier and finance minister called for thousands of homes to be constructed on a deeply controversial strip of land east of Jerusalem.
“Sharon created a precedent that could lead to a division of Jerusalem … Jerusalem is in danger,” he said on a tour flouting US condemnation of Israeli plans to develop Maale Adumim.