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Opinion: EU should re-think its border assistance role

Jan. 9, 2013 1:29 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 22, 2013 1:44 P.M.)
By: Mahmoud AbuRahma
The European Union must abandon the idea of redeploying its border monitoring mission on Gaza's border with Egypt, raised again by EU officials last month.

The European Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah crossing (EU-BAM) will not aid the Palestinians or contribute to the attainment of peace. In fact, it defeats the EU’s own declared goals in the region.

Instead, the EU should seek to play a more meaningful role that supports peace as well as justice, without playing into Israel’s phony security game.

By insisting on the redeployment of the mission at Gaza's Rafah crossing, it appears that the EU cherishes the idea of having a role on the ground, more than realizing its strategic interests and goals in the region.

To be consistent, the EU must press for a genuine role that supports its vision of the two-state solution by facilitating Palestinians’ movement between the two Palestinian regions of Gaza and the West Bank.

Helping or hurting?

The EU-BAM is no longer needed. The Rafah crossing is open and it is working to the maximum capacity that the situation allows for. On average, 800 Palestinians cross into Egypt daily; and while this is far from ideal, it at least meets the most urgent needs of a significant number of Gaza residents who need to travel abroad.

In operating the crossing, Egypt has been honoring the commitments emanating from the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The EU observers stationed at Rafah between November 2005 and June 2007 were required to ensure that only Palestinian holders of ID cards indicating residency in Gaza were allowed to pass through the crossing; this is the task that Egypt is fulfilling today, but without being compelled to close the crossing on each and every Israeli whim.

When the mission was operational, Israel would routinely declare the border area a closed military zone, thereby denying the observers access to Rafah and causing the crossing’s periodic closure.

A return to this situation would be catastrophic for the Gazan population and cause yet further damage to the reputations of the EU-BAM mission and their masters in Brussels.

Given the shaky security situation in both Gaza and the Sinai, it is not expected that the EU observers will live in either Gaza or Egypt. If they live in Israel or in the West Bank, Israel will retain the final say on whether or not they can access Rafah. Israel’s record of restricting the movement of Gaza’s population is well known to the EU.

Rafah will be closed again and again; and the Palestinians in Gaza will again be prevented from accessing healthcare, work, education and other basic human needs.

Enabling the separation policy

Equally important, the focus on Rafah feeds into Israel’s strategy of pushing Gaza further south; and away from the West Bank in order to prevent a Palestinian state from materializing in the occupied Palestinian territory. This strategy is no longer covert.

As recently as Sept. 24, 2012 the Israeli government informed the Israeli High Court of its "separation policy, which is based on political and security grounds", a policy which it invoked to justify the blanket ban on Gaza students’ access to Palestinian universities in the West Bank.

The EU has strongly criticized Israel’s expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territory on the grounds that this is destructive to its goals in the region; namely, a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

However, in dealing with Israel’s closure of Gaza, the EU continues to lay emphasis on improving socio-economic conditions and preventing a deterioration of the humanitarian situation.

The EU seems to have failed to grasp the powerful linkages between the settlement-colonization of the West Bank and its separation from the Gaza Strip. Together, these two policies make up the formula that Israel has devised to kill Palestinian statehood.

By placing the focus on movement between Gaza and Egypt, the EU will inevitably be playing Israel’s separation game which defeats the EU’s goals in the region.

The alternative

If the EU-BAM is no longer welcome at the Rafah crossing, then how can the EU make use of it? More importantly, how can it be used in a way that is supportive of and consistent with EU goals in the region?

Three potential scenarios arise. First, the mission might see a role for itself at the only commercial crossing between Gaza and Israel. A second choice could be envisioned in the form of a naval force situated off the Gaza coast to facilitate trade.

But playing either of these roles will drag the EU into participation in an illegal regime of closure and blockade. Neither will feed into a strategic role in the region that will contribute to the EU’s declared goals.

The third possible scenario could, however, strengthen peace, secure respect for international law and support EU policy in the region. The EU-BAM should seek to help Palestinians move between Gaza and the West Bank.

Such a role would create vital links between these two Palestinian regions and help bridge the divide enforced by Israel on the Palestinian people. It would improve socioeconomic conditions, especially if Gaza and the West Bank can exchange trade and other goods. Moreover, it would move Palestinian statehood, identified as the cornerstone of EU goals in the region, a big step forward.

This idea does not come out of the blue. The assertion that the Palestinian territory is one geographic unit is affirmed in the Oslo Accords. A safe passage was briefly opened between Gaza and the West Bank in the course of these accords.

Moreover, the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, which was forged under the auspices of the Quartet of which the EU is a member, includes an article stipulating that convoys of vehicles would be allowed to move between Gaza and the West Bank.

This arrangement was never implemented due to Israel’s breach of the agreement. If the EU wants to pick one part of the AMA to support, why should it be overseeing the working of the well-functioning Rafah crossing? Why should it be the movement of trade under an unlawful closure? Why not select the role that will support EU goals in the region? This is the sole scenario that is consistent with EU strategy.

Following the EU-Israel relations in the past few years, it is clear that this option does not seem easy. But when were the best options the easy ones? It takes courage on the part of the EU to insist on carrying out this mission, which would constitute a meaningful role in the region and not just a role for the sake of it.

Mahmoud AbuRahma is the communications director of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights - Gaza.

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