A woman carries a sign reading “No to the presence of the occupation at the crossing” as women Hamas supporters demonstrate against the border closure at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, 2 February 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
How is Israel able to strangle the Gaza Strip when there is supposed to be an international crossing between Gaza and Egypt not controlled by Israelis?
Certainly, free movement was the promise held out in the comprehensive Agreement on Movement and Access, signed more than two years ago by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The first of the six components of this agreement was that there would be a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah, controlled by the PA and Egypt. At the time, this was hailed as an historic step on the road to a Palestinian state — for the first time, it was said, Palestinians would have access to the outside world free from Israeli control.
So, how was Israel still able to impose a suffocating blockade on the Strip, home to almost 1.5 million Palestinians, eighty percent of them refugees? After Palestinian forces opened the border wall on 23 January, breaking the siege, many Palestinians blamed Egypt for not doing the same much earlier to relieve the suffering and deprivation that had brought Gaza to within days of running out of food and medicine. But however complicit Egypt may have been it was not alone.
It was primarily through the good offices of the European Union (EU), which had a formal role in managing the Rafah crossing, that Israel always had a veto on the opening of the crossing. In practice, whenever Israel didn’t want the crossing open, the EU obligingly kept it shut.
The Rafah crossing was open almost every day from 25 November 2005 to 24 June 2006, though not for 24 hours a day as intended. However, after 24 June 2006, when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinians, the EU, at Israel’s insistence, prevented it from opening regularly and then kept it closed completely since 9 June 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza.
The so-called Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) was the midwife of the agreement, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Javier Solana (EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy) were in Jerusalem on 15 November 2005 to launch it.
Rice said that the agreement “is intended to give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives.” She added that “for the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. This will be through an international crossing at Rafah.”
Solana also hailed the arrangements: “This is the first time that a border is opened and not controlled by the Israelis. … So as you can imagine, this is a very important step that is the first time that takes place.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that the US and the EU had made arrangements for a border crossing between Gaza and Egypt that was “not controlled by the Israelis” and that from then on Gaza couldn’t be strangled by Israel.
EU third party
But reality fell far short of Rice and Solana’s claims. The agreement did not provide for commercial goods traffic through the Rafah crossing into Gaza, so it did not facilitate trade. And despite the cosmetics, the crossing has always been controlled by the Israelis. Even though Israel has no personnel, military or otherwise, physically present at the crossing, it has been able to close the crossing at will, just as it can close the crossings between Gaza and Israel itself.
This came about because, under the agreement, a third party must have personnel present at the Rafah crossing before it is allowed to open. The third party is the EU — and the EU has always refused to man the crossing when Israel didn’t want the crossing open. In effect, the EU has acted as a proxy for Israel.
The agreement gives EU personnel at the crossing the authority “to ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the Rafah crossing point and the terms of this agreement” and in the event of perceived non-compliance “to order the re-examination and reassessment of any passenger, luggage, vehicle or goods.”
For this purpose, the EU established the grandly titled EU Border Assistance Mission for the Rafah Crossing Point, or EUBAM Rafah. This is a force of less than a hundred, mostly policemen, which is based in Ashkelon in Israel.
In addition to the EU monitors, who are physically present at the crossing, Israeli security forces are able to monitor activity at the crossing remotely, via closed circuit TV and other data links, and can make a record of the individuals crossing. The Israeli monitors are based in Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, where a liaison office (for liaison between Israel and the PA) is located. One of the duties of the EU, as the third party to the agreement, is to “lead” this office:
“A liaison office, led by the third party, will receive real-time video and data feed of the activities at Rafah and will meet regularly to review implementation of this agreement, resolve any disputes arising from this agreement, and perform other tasks specified in this agreement.”
Ridiculous as it may seem, the EU takes the view that the opening of the crossing is a matter that may be disputed by Israeli representatives in the liaison office. And if they don’t agree to it opening, the EU doesn’t send its monitors to the crossing, as required for its opening under the terms of the agreement. So, Israel has a veto over the opening of the crossing, even though, according to Rice and Solana, it is “not controlled by the Israelis.”
But on the EUBAM website, the answer given to the question “Can EUBAM open the crossing point?” is:
“RCP [Rafah Crossing Point] can only be opened by agreement between the Parties. EUBAM cannot itself open the crossing point.”
That is as plain as a pikestaff: in the opinion of the EU, the agreement gives Israel a veto on whether the crossing should open. There is nothing in the agreement to warrant such an interpretation — and it is in flat contradiction to the words of Rice and Solana that the crossing would “not be controlled by Israelis.”
What is more, in the opinion of the EU, the agreement gives Israel the right to close the crossing when it is open. According to a press statement on 14 December 2006, after the crossing opened that day, “the Government of Israel had requested that the crossing be closed due to the expected arrival of Prime Minister Haniyeh, who was reportedly carrying a large sum of money.” After consultations with Brussels, the EU closed the crossing.
Since the Israeli-built Gaza-Egypt border wall was torn down, Israel, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Egypt and the EU have met to try to restore the arrangements under the agreement. Hamas, excluded from these meetings, has stated that it will not allow a return to the situation of de facto Israeli control through the “third party” proxy and has demanded a role in managing the crossing.
If Gaza is to be immune from strangulation by Israel in future, then the Israeli veto over the opening of the Rafah crossing will have to be ended. In addition, the crossing must cater for commercial traffic into Gaza, which is not provided for under the present agreement.