(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
If Israel continues to close the Rafah border terminal, the European Union will need to reconsider extending its observer team's presence in the Strip, Gen. Pietro Pistolese, commander of the Border Assistance Mission, said Sunday.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, he said if Israel kept the terminal closed to the point where it was no longer functional, the EU might decide it was no longer worth maintaining 70 observers in the Gaza Strip.
"If the border is not open, the mission is not useful," Pistolese said.
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According to statistics obtained by the Post, since June 25, 2006 - the same day Cpl. Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas gunmen outside Gaza - the crossing has been closed 79 percent of the time, and open just 57 days. Just over 109,000 people have passed through Rafah during that period.
Had the crossing not been closed, an estimated 480,000 people would have passed through the crossing, Gaza's only gateway to the outside world.
Pistolese's remarks come at a sensitive time for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, currently negotiating with the EU over extension of the Rafah Crossing Agreement, which expires in mid-May.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's military-diplomatic bureau, is representing Israel in the talks.
Israel maintains control of the terminal through its ability to close the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, which prevents the observers from entering the PA. The EU personnel, who work in shifts, live in a hotel in Ashkelon.
Pistolese said the EU Council in Brussels would also need to discuss whether to extend the observers' mission, from a financial point of view.
He said the situation had recently improved and he was hopeful that Israel would do more to permit the observers to keep the crossing between Gaza and Sinai open most of the time.
Pistolese said he did not believe the EU should abandon the mission at this time. But if the border was no longer functional, the EU would have to reconsider the usefulness of the mission, "because of the cost."
"This is an investment that the EU makes for the benefit of the Israeli government and the Palestinian population, and in order to be the third neutral party in this situation and to create good conditions for the advancement of the peace process," he said.
Pistolese said he was not aware of Palestinians traveling to Iran, Syria and Lebanon for training, as Israel has claimed. He also denied that weapons were being smuggled into Gaza through the crossing.
Pistolese, 65, is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1994, he was one of the three founders of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which was set up after Baruch Goldstein gunned down Muslim worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding dozens.
Pistolese later served as a senior European monitor in the first PA elections in 1996. He is a veteran of several peacekeeping tours, including in the Balkans.
The Border Assistance Mission began monitoring the Rafah terminal in November 2005. It was established by the Rafah Crossing Agreement, signed by Israel, the PA and the EU. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mediated between the sides.
Israeli officials said Pistolese was doing an effective job at the crossing, which they said was often closed due to security considerations.
"We are balancing between the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians and Israel's security constraints," a senior official said.
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