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Fearing for their lives, European Union monitors stationed at the Rafah Crossing that connects the Gaza Strip and Egypt have asked the defense establishment for help in drawing up escape routes from Gaza in the event of an attack on the border terminal, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The monitors, led by Italian Maj.-Gen. Pietro Pistolese, have raised concerns in recent weeks for their safety following a series of threats to their lives. An Israeli defense official told the Post that several weeks ago a large bomb was discovered on a route used by the monitors to drive through Gaza.
Later this week, the head of the Defense Ministry's Military-Diplomatic Bureau, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, is scheduled to sign an agreement that will extend the monitoring team's mandate by another year. It was initially signed following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
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Last week, Italian Chief of Staff Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola met with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and expressed grave concern for the safety of the monitors stationed at Rafah. In December, Hamas gunmen stormed into the terminal after Israel closed the crossing ahead of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's planned return to the Strip from Egypt.
"They are genuinely concerned for their lives," said a senior defense official who is involved in the talks with the EU and the 80-man monitor team. In Gaza, the EU personnel are protected by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Force 17 "Presidential Guard."
Ahead of the planned signing of the agreement, the monitors asked the IDF to assist in coordinating possible escape routes from Gaza. One proposal was for the monitors to run across the border to Egypt, although Israeli defense officials said they would still be defenseless since Palestinian gunmen could fire at them from across the border fence.
The second proposal was for the monitors to drive to the Erez Crossing with Israel, although such a move would require them to travel through the entire Gaza Strip.
The third proposal, which was accepted by the EU monitors, was to make a dash for the Gaza security fence that separates Israel from Gaza, where they would be rescued by the IDF.
"They want to know that we will help them escape if the need arises," the defense official said. "Their concerns are understandable if you take into account the large number of threats they face."
The increasing threats against the monitors have raised concerns in Israel that the EU would refuse to extend the monitors' mandate, leaving the Gaza-Egyptian border completely open. Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem rejected this possibility and said the agreement would be signed in the coming days as planned.
A military source close to Ashkenazi confirmed, however, that this scenario was raised during the meeting last week between the two chiefs of staff. The spokeswoman for the monitors, Maria Telleria, said Monday night that she had heard rumors of a plan to pull the team out of Rafah, but that there was nothing concrete.