EU seeks to open sea route to Gaza

Ships may be inspected in Cyprus, under new proposals.

Gaza Sunset 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Gaza Sunset 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The European Union wants to help open a sea route to Gaza and to revive and expand its role at the land crossings into the area, diplomatic sources told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Its Foreign Affairs Council plans to debate the matter on Monday, when ministers from the EU’s 27 countries convene in Luxembourg for their monthly meeting.
The debate comes amidst sharp international criticism of Israel’s three-year policy of closing Gaza’s land passages to all but humanitarian goods.
“The EU has called for an immediate and sustained opening of the Gaza crossings and they will look into options of how the EU could facilitate this,” a council spokeswoman told the Post.
According to diplomatic sources the EU has floated a plan for Gaza-bound ships to be inspected in Cyprus to ensure that no weapons are on board.
A European vessel would then accompany the ship to Gaza. In an alternative plan the ship would dock first in Ashdod to be inspected by Israel and then proceed under similar accompaniment to Gaza.
The diplomatic sources did not address the technical problems posed by the fact that Gaza’s port is not large enough to accommodate cargo ships.
Even before Israel imposed a naval blockade on Gaza, no cargo ships sailed there. Historically, all goods that entered the area in bulk did so by land.
The head of the Palestinian Federation of Industry in Gaza, Amr Hamad, told the Post that the business sector has separately proposed a plan by which ferry boats would meet the cargo ships close to the shore and bring the cargo into the port. He said that such a plan was discussed this week with Quartet special envoy Tony Blair, who was in the region.
He stressed that the business community in Gaza at present preferred that the goods head first to Ashdod, so as to maintain a relationship with the Israeli customs envelope. The business sector in Gaza is not ready to break its economic ties with Israel, he added.
An Israeli official told the Post that the government was very skeptical about any proposal for an international body, including the EU, to monitor Gaza-bound ships.
In the last two weeks Israeli officials have repeatedly explained that the naval blockade is intended to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. The scale of weapons that can be brought in by sea is much greater than those that can be smuggled in by land.
The Israeli official pointed out that a multinational force placed by the UN Security Council along the Lebanese border has not been able to prevent weapons smuggling there.
Earlier this week French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, “We all understand why there must be no more arms in this enclosed Gaza Strip.” But he added that he believed the EU could help prevent that.
The EU “can easily monitor the cargoes of boats heading for Gaza. We can do this. We want to do it and we would do it very willingly.”
He also called for the EU to send its monitors, otherwise known as the European Border Assistance Mission, back to the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt, which was built for pedestrian passage.
The work of those monitors was halted for security reasons, after the 2007 coup in which Hamas threw Fatah out of Gaza.
Fatah was stationed on the Gaza side of all four crossings: Rafah on the Egyptian border and the Israeli border crossings of Kerem Shalom, Karni and Erez.
All agreements relating to those crossings involved Israel and the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas.
EUBAM in Rafah operated under a 2005 agreement, which it had with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Since 2007 its representatives have sat in Ashkelon, under the terms of the 2005 agreement, in hopes that they would be able to return to Rafah.
Last week Egypt opened the Rafah borders, as it has done intermittently in the last three years, without EUBAM.
Diplomatic sources said if EUBAM returned it would be under the terms of the 2005 agreement. The sources did not address the the internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas, which to date has made it impossible to revive that agreement.
If anything, the sources said, the EU wants to also station EUBAM at the Kerem Shalom and Karni crossings, where goods now enter the area. They did not mention the Erez pedestrian crossing.
Diplomatic sources said the EU also wants Israel to rescind its restrictions on consumer goods, its ban on building materials and bulk products necessary to revive Gaza factories.
At present, only 25 percent of the amount of goods that used to flow through the crossings enter Gaza.
An Israeli official told the Post that thegovernment had already shown some flexibility in increasing the varietyand amount of consumer goods and had approved construction materialsfor 12 projects. If those projects are successful, they can be a modelfor additional endeavors, the official said.
But the official stressed that the restrictions at the passages areaimed at weakening Hamas in Gaza, and that Israel has no intention ofallowing a full revival of the Gaza economy as long as Hamas refuses torenounce violence and does not recognize Israel and past agreementswith the Palestinian Authority.
The official noted that Palestinians in Gaza continue to launch missiles against Israel and that Hamas is openly hostile to it.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.