Jerusalem/Ramallah – The European Union stands ready – if asked – to resume its Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) at the Rafah crossing, or take up other similar new tasks there, according to Christian Berger, EU Representative to the Palestinian Authority.
In an interview in his East Jerusalem headquarters last Friday, and again in a joint appearance with Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki in Ramallah on Monday, Berger said the EU welcomed the reopening of the only crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.
“We’ve always said that all crossing points have to be open,” he added.
A hard-won Agreement on Movement and Access in November 2005 appointed the EU to carry out an essential “Third Party” monitoring role at the Rafah Crossing. This was intended as reassurance to Israel. But, at the time the EU accepted this role, it emphasized that it was also offering assistance, particularly to help build Palestinian capacity.
In the interview, held just hours before Egypt’s formal reopening of Rafah crossing on 28 May, Berger said that "for people who have been stuck in Gaza for a long time, I think it's good news."
By mid-week, however, it was clear that there were problems. Palestinians were not pleased to learn that only 350 to 400 Gazans could use the Rafah crossing a day – and that the names had to be submitted 24 hours in advance.
“We cannot accept the reinstatement of restrictions," Hamas officials claimed they told their Egyptian counterparts in response.
Separately, the PA Ambassador in Cairo said he had instructions to protest a blacklist containing names of some 5000 Palestinians prohibited from entering Egypt through Rafah.
After Saturday’s reopening, Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said there is no need for foreign or international monitors at Rafah. Journalists present at Rafah on Saturday confirmed that Palestinian security and customs officials working on the Gaza side were either from, or approved by, Hamas.
But PLO and Fatah official Sa’eb Erekat reportedly told journalists that the mechanisms for operations at Rafah could change after Fatah and Hamas reach agreement on a new “technocratic” Palestinian government, which may be formed by 6 June.
In a televised interview on 28 April, new Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby made the surprise announcement that the Rafah crossing would be reopened. The decision appears to have been unilateral – though carried out after considerable behind-the-scenes consultations. All indications suggest the situation is evolving and negotiations are currently continuing.
The EUBAM mandate was, in fact, formally renewed by the EU Council last week, and will continue at least through the end of the year.
Asked if he thinks a new agreement is necessary, Berger said discussions would be held with all parties involved regarding the issue.
“Again, the European Union has offered its assistance. So, if it’s seen necessary, if it’s seen useful, they we are ready to do this,” said Berger. “And we still have a small contingent in Ashkelon that can be deployed and can be expanded, if necessary, to the size as it used to be before the closure of Rafah.”
In Ramallah on Monday, Berger made reference to UN Security Council 1860, passed on 8 January 2009 at the height of Israel’s devastating three-week Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza. It called on all UN Member States “to ensure the sustained reopening of the crossing points on the basis of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between the Palestinian Authority and Israel”, and emphasized “the need to ensure sustained and regular flow of goods and people through the Gaza crossings.” The resolution also stated that Gaza will “be a part of the Palestinian State.”
Resolution 1860 also refers back to Resolution 1850, adopted on 16 December 2008, days before the start of Operation Cast Lead, which “calls on all states and international organizations…to support the Palestinian government that is committed to the Quartet principles and the Arab Peace Initiative and respects the commitments of the Palestinian Liberation Organization” – and that is not Hamas.
Asked, in the joint appearance in Ramallah on Monday, what role the PA would play in the new arrangements at the Rafah crossing, PA Foreign Minister Malki said discussions with the parties involved are currently underway. At that very moment, he said, President Abbas was in Cairo, meeting with Field Marshall Tantawi.
“We are discussing to see what is the best formula” to ensure Palestinian movement in both directions, he said, “and also to ensure that no weapons or [dangerous/unauthorized] persons pass through”.
“We would like to see the EU as a real player in the region”, Malki added.
And, in an apparent reference to the anticipated Palestinian bid to seek membership in the United Nations this autumn, al-Malki stated: “We expect the EU to respect their responsibilities in September.”
“When the time comes, when it is appropriate, we will recognize a Palestinian state.” Berger told journalists in Ramallah.