rafah control 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel has asked the European Union observer force at the Rafah border crossing to take upon itself wider authority, and on a parallel track Israel has asked Egypt to step up efforts to prevent Palestinian terrorists from crossing into Gaza, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Last week, the EU extended until May 2008 the mandate of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) for the Rafah Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, with the extension renewable for a further six months.
Israel sent a letter to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on May 15 saying that it was willing to agree to an extension of the observer force provided that a number of changes be made in the force's mandate.
The mandate could only be extended if both the Israelis and the Palestinians, along with the Europeans, agreed.
The changes Israel wanted to see in the mandate focused on three areas: that the force do more to prevent suspected terrorists from using the crossing; that the force be empowered to stop the transfer of funds over a certain sum into Gaza; and that it take a more robust role in preventing material - such as fertilizer - that could be used for terror-related purposes from moving through the crossing.
Defense officials said that while the mandate has formally been extended, several key issues still have to be resolved among Israel, the EU and the Palestinians - primarily the issue of "persons of concern" - Palestinians Israel identifies as terrorists.
Israel wants to broaden the force's mandate beyond merely monitoring the situation at the crossing to actually having the authority to enforce rules that aim to prevent terror operatives from crossing into Gaza from Egypt.
Under the old mandate, Israel reserved the right to detain terror suspects at the crossing for six hours, but the final decision whether or not to allow them in was left to the Palestinians. Israel has been hesitant to share with the Europeans the names of people on its list of suspects, for fear that the names would be passed on to the Palestinians and valuable intelligence would be lost.
Israel seeks to enhance the monitors' status at the crossing from an observer force to a force that actually takes an active role in inspecting travelers.
In addition, Israel is interested in granting the Europeans executive authority over the crossing that would allow them to shut it down if Palestinians allowed a person of concern to enter Gaza.
"We would like to see the Europeans get involved in the inspection process and have more authority at the crossing," a senior Defense Ministry official said. "According to the current mandate, the EU force has basically no authority and just sits on the side as the Palestinians allow everyone to enter."
Government officials said the sides have pretty much agreed now to a more active role for the Europeans.
Another issue left open but unresolved is the amount of money a Palestinian is allowed to carry while crossing into Gaza. Israel has demanded that a ceiling be set according to international norms - for instance, Israelis are allowed to bring up to NIS 80,000 into Israel from abroad without declaring that money - while the Palestinians and the EU are pushing for a higher sum.
In December, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh tried to transfer $35 million into Gaza through the crossing.
Negotiations on these issues have been conducted indirectly over the last few months, with Israel speaking to the EU and to US security coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, who would then discuss the issues with the Palestinians.
Israel was represented at the talks by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh and head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, who was authorized by Defense Minister Amir Peretz to sign the new agreement on Israel's behalf.
While Israeli officials said that the decision by the EU to extend EUBAM by a year means that they have accepted the need to change the scope of the force's mandate, an EUBAM spokesman said that the discussions on the matter were continuing, and there had been no change yet in the force's mode of operation.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem explained the discrepancy between their understandings and the EUBAM spokesman's statement by saying that the Rafah crossing has largely remained closed for the last two weeks, and as a result the new understandings have not yet filtered down to the force on the ground.
On a parallel track, the Defense Ministry has contacted the Egyptians and asked them to upgrade their involvement at the crossing. Egypt maintains the other side of the border and has in the past prevented a number of Palestinians from leaving Gaza. Defense officials told The Post that Egypt could also assist in preventing Palestinians from entering the Gaza Strip and possibly even arrest them once they were barred entry by the EU monitor force.
"Until now, if we would ask someone to be stopped then there were still other ways to get into Gaza such as through the Philadelphi Corridor," an official explained. "If the Egyptians get involved then we might be able to stop that from happening."