EU renews Gaza border mission

Javier Solana, European Union foreign policy chief, has welcomed an EU decision last week to renew the mandate of its monitoring force at the Gaza Strip’s Rafah crossing point – the only link to the outside world for the almost 1.5m Palestinians who live there.

As a renewed cross-border war raged between Israel and Gaza, Mr Solana’s statement diplomatically glossed over a dispute that Palestinian officials say threatened to end the EU’s 18-month-old mission and shut down the Rafah lifeline.

Israel, citing concerns about money and weapons flooding to militants in the Gaza Strip, wanted the terms of the EU mandate strengthened, while the Palestinian Authority accused the Israelis of attempting to alter its terms without consultation.

The EU meanwhile balked at turning the monitoring role of its 75 personnel into an executive one that would require them personally to detain potential suspects travelling through Rafah and search for contraband.

The Border Assistance Mission – codenamed EU BAM – was set up in November 2005 after Israel evacuated its civilian settlements and ground forces from the Gaza Strip. A team of European police officers headed by Major-General Pietro Pistolese, an Italian police commander, was to monitor the work of Palestinian customs officials at the Gaza-Egypt crossing.

At the time, the EU hailed its initiative as a contribution to the peace process and Palestinian state-building. Eighteen months on, however, the border crossing has been closed more often than it has been open and, in 11 months since the kidnapping by Palestinian militants of an Israeli soldier last June, it was open for only 76 days.

EU officials said the impact of the closures was regularly to strand thousands of travellers on either side of the border. The system relies on representatives from Israel, the PA and the EU being present at a liaison office some miles from Rafah where there is access to a live video and data feed from the terminal. If Israeli officers fail to attend, as they frequently do, EU officials say, the crossing must close.

“It’s been a difficult period for the mission,” an EU official said. “Negotiations on renewal were not as smooth or as fast as we anticipated.”

The Palestinians requested a renewal of the mandate a month ago, but a similar Israeli request was not received from Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister, until May 15 - days before the original mandate was to have expired.

In a letter to Mr Solana, she referred to additional agreements reached on a number of issues, including limits on the amount of cash individuals were allowed to bring into Gaza, additions to a list of banned goods and the issue of “persons of concern” using the crossing.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told Mr Solana no such agreements had been reached and he was “deeply dismayed” by Ms Livni’s stance. The mandate was renewed last Thursday in Brussels, hours before it was due to run out, but Israeli officials insist the tougher procedures are still being negotiated.

“We’ve raised very legitimate security concerns,” said Mark Regev of the Israeli foreign ministry. “There is a much more serious issue to be addressed in the building of a very formidable terrorist machine in Gaza.”

Mr Regev acknowledged alleged weapons shipments would enter Gaza via tunnels under the border rather than through the Rafah terminal, but he added: “Do they think the borders can be kept open in a vacuum?”

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, on Sunday said the military would step up attacks on Hamas militants after a rocket killed an Israeli man in southern Israel. He was the second Israeli to die in the rocket offensive, while Israeli air strikes have killed almost 50 Palestinians, most of them militants.

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