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A European Union advance team arrived Wednesday to look at the Rafah terminal and determine how many EU monitors will be needed there, and what equipment and type of protection they will need to properly do their job, EU Middle East envoy Marc Otte said Wednesday night.
Otte, heading a delegation sent here last week to define the role of the proposed EU team at Rafah, spoke to The Jerusalem Post between meetings in Tel Aviv with Israeli, Palestinian Authority and American officials aimed at wrapping up an agreement that would enable the reopening of the Rafah crossing.
He said that while no one was currently talking about taking the Rafah model, which includes a third-party presence, and implementing it at crossing points between Israel and the PA, such as Karni or Erez, "it is clear that if the model shows merit and proves to be efficient, there are other areas where it could be applied."
According to Otte, one of the issues the advance team would look at was who would provide security for the EU monitors. He said the EU has not ruled out providing its own protection, but was in discussions with the PA on this matter. "Governments sending nationals abroad want assurances that they will not be harmed," he said.
Otte said the team would likely be made up of policemen, border guards and customs agents from a few EU states. He would not say which states had expressed an interest in contributing manpower to the force.
The team's overriding concerns, he said, would be "not allowing troublemakers into Gaza, or the smuggling into Rafah of weapons or ammunition."
Otte said the EU had made a commitment that at all times there would be EU personnel at the terminal, which is smaller than the border crossing between Jordan and Israel at the Allenby Bridge.
He said the EU team's mandate was threefold: implement the framework agreement on the crossing agreed upon by Israel and the PA; engage in capacity building, meaning training Palestinians on the job; and making regular assessments with the PA about what has been done and how to upgrade the operations.
But he made it clear that "we are not going to enforce the law."
Nevertheless, Otte said that Israel wanted the EU to have the authority to intervene if the monitors detected that the Palestinians were not doing something correctly, and ensure that they correct the matter and take proper action. For example, Israel's expectation is that if the monitors detect that a bag has not been checked properly, they would have the power to "stop operations" until the situation was rectified.
Otte defined the role that is being chiseled out for the EU team as one of "active monitors." He said he viewed Israel's willingness to agree to an EU presence at the crossing a sign of a significant change that has taken place in EU-Israel ties.
"The Europeans have shown a willingness to be involved operationally, to do things, provide results, and I think Israel has accepted this," he said.
He admitted that Israel's acceptance of this role for the EU was not divorced from the fact that with the Americans so heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not keen on taking on this role, there was no one else to whom to turn.
"We have started to look at each other a bit differently, more as partners," Otte said.
Asked if he was concerned the EU would be blamed if terrorists or arms were smuggled through the crossing, Otte said, "We go into this with our eyes open, aware of both the political and personal risks. But being a player means you don't ignore risks, you manage them."
He said the EU team was not meant to be at the crossing "forever," and that the measure of its success would be for it "not to stay too long."
Quartet disengagement envoy James Wolfensohn said in a meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom Wednesday that time was critical in concluding an agreement over the opening of the crossing. He reportedly said that five months had been "wasted."
Otte said that reaching an agreement on the crossing was considered key in making progress on other issues that are key to the development of a healthy economy in Gaza - agreements over the Erez and Karni crossings and creating a link between Gaza and the West Bank.