(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
Israel has not flagged any of the 45,000 Palestinians who have crossed through the Rafah terminal since it opened five weeks ago, the commander of the European monitors revealed Tuesday.
"The IDF has not requested to stop anyone," Maj.-Gen. Pietro Pistolese said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
The Shin Bet said it had requested that individuals be barred from entering but did not give any numbers.
Speaking at the Kerem Shalom liaison office where Israeli and Palestinian officers coordinate the movement of people through the nearby Rafah crossing, Pistolese said Israel should feel more secure because European monitors are there.
"We are in the middle to support both sides. We take care of the Israeli side and its security concerns and also the Palestinian side and their necessities. They should trust us and trust in the new future," he said, wearing the blue vest of the Border Assistance Mission (BAM).
Pistolese's comments came following reports that senior Hamas terrorists, including Bashir Hammad who founded the armed wing Izzadin al-Kassam, had crossed into the Gaza Strip very recently and that dozens of Hamas and Fatah fugitives have returned since the Rafah terminal was handed over to the Palestinian Authority four months ago.
One of the key points of the Rafah agreement was Israel's insistence on having some sort of ability to prevent terrorists from entering the Gaza Strip. The ultimate agreement distanced Israeli officers from the terminal, but provided them with real-time video and data feeds to see who was entering and leaving.
Pistolese noted that the agreement allowed for a case-by-case approval of "persons of concern" that the BAM would oversee and mediate. According to the agreement, if Israel flags an individual, the three sides then negotiate the possibility of prohibiting him from moving through the terminal.
The person cannot be delayed for more than six hours and the final decision lies with the PA.
"Until now, we haven't yet received any claim. The procedure hasn't been applied," Pistolese said.
The IDF and the Ministry of Defense both washed their hands of the issue and said flagging suspected terrorists was in the hands of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a critic of the Rafah agreement, said he wasn't surprised by the situation.
"I said beforehand this arrangement was born to fail," Steinitz told the Post. "There are many cases of bribery and smuggling of weapons and terrorists at the crossing," he said, stressing it was the Palestinian Authority that was making a farce of the security arrangements. "If they wanted to stop or delay terrorists, they could," he said.
According to Steinitz, the data and video feeds were not being relayed in real time and the Palestinians were passing the people through "before you could say 'Jack Robinson,'" depriving the Israeli monitors of any chance to object.
Steinitz also blasted the European monitors for fleeing at the first sign of trouble, referring to last Friday's assault of the crossing by armed Palestinian police who were protesting the death of a policeman. The European monitors retreated to the IDF base nearby.
Pistolese rejected the idea his military men and women had fled. He said they left because the terminal had been shut down and there was nothing to do.
"If you can't work what else can you do? Wait until it is ended, which is what we did. When the PA cleared the crossing, the border was opened again and we returned," Pistolese said. "This is a sort of problem we could have in any country."
Pistolese stressed repeatedly that it was not the BAM's mandate to fight terror but to monitor, mediate and train.
"We cannot prevent anybody from crossing the border because that data is in the hands of the Israelis," he said.
The 64-year-old Pistolese is no stranger to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was one of the three founders of Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) in 1994. TIPH was set up after US-born Jewish settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein gunned down Muslim worshipers at the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 and wounding scores more.
TIPH's mission was to provide Palestinians with a sense of security. Pistolese later served as a senior European monitor of the first Palestinian elections in 1996. He is also a veteran of several peacekeeping operations, including service in the Balkans.
Since the BAM began monitoring the Rafah terminal on November 26, movement through it peaked at some 1,500 daily during the haj (pilgrimage) in late December, but today an average of 1,000 people cross daily during its eight hours of operation.
Hopes are to open it 24 hours a day.
Pistolese said they have been instrumental in training the Palestinians in border crossing operations and give them daily grades - usually 3 out of 5. The monitors ask the Palestinian border guards to review about 70-80 cases a day.
"They are not totally new to this," he said, noting Palestinians once ran the Gaza Airport.
Some of the BAM monitors have been training the Palestinians in recognizing forged documents, others in customs collection.
The BAM is composed of some 50 men and women from 14 countries, including France, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Germany, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Italy, Romania and Lithuania.
"I am trying to build up confidence between the two sides. This is a very important task to embrace the peace process and the road map," Pistolese said.