Hamas won’t oppose EU presence at border, official says

Adviser to Hamas makes comments after Egypt vows to open Gaza’s Rafah crossing; concession may ease Israel's concerns about security.

rafah border crossing_311 reuters (photo credit: Ismail Zaydah / Reuters)
rafah border crossing_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ismail Zaydah / Reuters)
Hamas doesn’t object to the reinstatement of European Union observers at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a Hamas official told The Media Line.
"We don’t mind if the Europeans are involved as long as the Egyptian side agrees to this," Ahmad Yousef, a political adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told The Media Line on Sunday. "The only objection we have is to Israeli involvement. This is an agreement between Palestinians and the Egyptians," he added.
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The position comes amid growing tensions between Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt after Hamas and rival Palestinian faction Fatah reached a surprise agreement to end four years of feuding and form a national unity government. Cairo, which brought the two sides together, said the pact would enable it to re-open its border with Hamas-controlled Gaza, spurring concerns in Israel about security.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi said the crossing, which has remained mostly closed since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, would be permanently opened within a week to 10 days, "to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people."
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum told Al-Ahram daily on Sunday that Egyptians regarded the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip "disgraceful."
Opening the border would mark the biggest breach in the Gaza blockade, which was imposed by Israel and backed by the West since 2007. While Israel has been forced to ease its control over the territory, and tunnels dug under the border to Egypt allow other supplies to enter, Hamas has struggled to bring in weapons for use against Israel.
Israel has come out strongly against the planned Hamas-Fatah unity government. Fatah favors a negotiated peace with Israel while Hamas is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. The agreement doesn’t address how the unity government will square these positions.
EU supervision, however, might ease Israel’s concerns about what passes through Rafah. which is the only border crossing not controlled by Israel. Following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, responsibility for the Rafah crossing was handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
An ad-hoc European force, the European Union Border Assistance Mission Rafah was appointed to oversee Egyptian and Palestinian management of the crossing, with Israel monitoring it from afar through a video surveillance system. But seven months later, in June 2006, Israel ordered the crossing closed for security reasons. The crossing was permanently sealed by the Egyptians the following June.
While the terms of Egypt’s promised re-opening are still unclear, Gazans said on Sunday they were looking forward, saying it would give residents a big psychological boost.
"Gazans always felt under siege. This will give them a sense of freedom," Samir Zaqout, field work coordinator for the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, told The Media Line. "Egypt has clearly changed its strategy towards the Gaza Strip, and I believe this new attitude is here to stay."
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shared Israel's antipathy to the Hamas regime and kept the border crossing closed, while partially combating the smuggling of goods in underground tunnels between Egypt to Gaza. Egypt's new military regime has been friendlier to Hamas, brokering a reconciliation agreement between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas, that is expected to be signed this Thursday.  
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, declined to comment on the Egyptian decision, but Israeli daily Haaretz reported Sunday that Netanyahu is considering sending his special envoy Isaac Molho to discuss the matter with Egyptian officials. Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-security bureau, told Army Radio that "despite the announcement by the Egyptian administration, there will be no opening of the Rafah crossing."
"Israel maintains the amount of products entering the Strip at a minimum," Zaqout said. "Every time it decides to close the crossings, a humanitarian crisis follows two or three days later."
But Mathilde De Riedmatten, deputy director of the International Committee for the Red Cross in the Gaza Strip, said in an interview published on the Israeli army’s website April 20, that "there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza."
"If you go to the supermarket, there are products. There are restaurants and a nice beach," she added. 
Ali Abu-Shahlah, secretary-general of Gaza's Business Association, admitted that the main change in the life of Gazans would be in the ability of individuals to enter and leave freely. He predicted that the opening of the Rafah crossing would also ease trade and transfer of money but only on a small scale.
"We are human beings and we need vacations," Abu-Shahlah told The Media Line. "I personally know people who haven't left Gaza in 15 years. This will have a psychological effect; people's mood will change."
"There is what we call the 'suitcase merchants' who will be able to bring in some merchandise," he said. "Gazans living in the Gulf will be able to visit their relatives in the Strip without fear of getting stuck in Egypt, or in Gaza. They will be able to carry in a few thousand dollars or other gifts in their pockets."
But Hamdi Shaqura, deputy director for program affairs at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a Gaza-based organization, was less optimistic about the new arrangement.
"It’s unclear whether the opening will include economic transactions or will only allow individuals to cross," Shaqura told The Media Line. "This isn’t an alternative to our demand from Israel to lift the blockade imposed on Gaza."
Shaqura said Gaza needed to be allowed to export goods, not only receive them, and maintain land passage to the West Bank.