EU monitors waiting to redeploy to Rafah

"We've been sitting here doing nothing - but we can get back to full strength at short notice," one says.

eu monitor 224 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
eu monitor 224
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
They came with good intentions - to help build trust between the IDF and Palestinian officials - but since June 6, 2006, when Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by Hamas, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EU BAM) has effectively been banished from the Rafah frontier crossing. "We've been sitting here doing nothing," said Nigel Milverton, a former British army cavalry regiment officer, who now helps manage EU BAM-Rafah. Milverton says BAM's minimized presence in Ashkelon today is symbolic of the EU's continued commitment to resume its efforts to help bring about calm in the area. On Wednesday, hours before the tentative truce came into effect between Israel and Hamas, the EU monitors were preparing themselves for the unlikely scenario of returning to Rafah. "We're ready to accept a rapid deployment at a short notice. Within two weeks of being told, we can get back to full strength - 85 internationals [most of whom are currently abroad]," Milverton said. Members of the mission hail from across Europe, and are experts at border control. Their presence at the border crossing was mostly intended to assure the IDF that PA border officials at Rafah were doing their jobs properly, scrutinizing goods traveling across the border for arms and sifting though names looking for terrorist suspects. When it was fully active, from November 2005 to the Schalit kidnapping, BAM performed well, despite criticisms from Israeli defense officials, Milverton said. "No weapons went through. There was very tight control at Rafah, using X-ray machines. Although we've been accused of allowing persons of concern through, Israel never exercised its right to hold up someone with a suspicious name," he added. BAM members are unarmed, and while there is a stash of weapons at their disposal at Kerem Hashalom "for self-defense," they are unlikely to ever get involved in a gunfight. "We are a neutral independent third party. Our job is to make sure that PA border officials follow regulations. We mentored and advised them," Milverton explained. "If we saw a violation of regulations, we would report it." Under the old arrangement, the IDF and PA police would sit in an office at Kerem Hashalom with access to surveillance video feeds from Rafah and a live update of the names of people crossing the border. In order for BAM to return to Rafah, it would have to be invited back by Israel and the PA, as specified in a 2005 agreement under which the mission was first deployed. But after the bloody purge of 2006, PA members have disappeared from Hamas-ruled Gaza, and Milverton conceded that some sort of agreement between the warring Palestinian factions was needed before the observers can return. "For us to deploy requires political and security decisions," he said. "Hamas has said it is not against the idea of PA troops in and around Rafah crossing. The reality is that the PA would have to talk to Hamas daily." "We're here to help the parties, but it is up to them to come up with a mechanism [to allow us back,]" Milverton added. Miverton, who had previously taken part in missions to bolster peace in Sudan and the Balkans, said the EU monitors were keen to take up their posts again. "We want to go back. It's frustrating," he said.