EUBAM head: Keeping Rafah open is the trick

Col. Alain Faugeras tells Post that security protocols must be signed this time around.

alain faugeras 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
alain faugeras 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's not reopening the Egypt-Gaza border after a cease-fire deal is finalized that worries the European Union Border Assistance Mission, stationed in Ashkelon, these days. It's keeping the border open. Even as Egyptian officials in Cairo are busy hammering out a deal that would pave the way to reopening the border - which has been closed to all but limited traffic since June 2007 - EUBAM wants to make sure security issues don't immediately shut it down again. It's not an idle fear. From June 13, 2006, until Hamas's violent coup of Gaza forced the closure of Rafah on June 13, 2007, the crossing was opening only 23.5 percent of the time, or 83 out of 353 days. Security concerns kept it closed for 270 days. Of those, 257 were at the request of the IDF, 13 because of Egypt, and 15 at the insistence of EUBAM. So Col. Alain Faugeras, head of the European mission - which has been charged since November 2005 with monitoring activity at the Rafah crossing - is determined to change those statistics should the border reopen. "It is not enough to be ready to redeploy. I have tried to upgrade [EUBAM]'s capability," Faugeras told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. He took over the mission in November 2008, at a time when its 76 staff members had dwindled down to 18 and there appeared no hope in sight of a return. Still, he said, "I found a mission ready for the future." The tall French colonel, who had worked with his country's delegation in Brussels and had helped design the mission from Europe, told his staff, "One day, we will return." Now, as that prediction appears to be close to reality, EUBAM has expanded its office space on the second floor of an Ashkelon hotel. Some 16 new staff members have arrived in the last two weeks, and more are expected this week. In spite of the new flurry of movement, his hopes have alternately risen and fallen as he has been briefed by Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials and read the headlines in the newspapers. The basic requirements for opening the crossings are very clear, he said. First, a cease-fire must be in place between Hamas and Israel, and then the Palestinian Authority has to be allowed to man the crossing. This is critical, given that the EU does not have relations with Hamas and the only way to reopen Rafah rapidly would be to reinstitute the 2005 agreement on movement and access, and the related Rafah crossing agreement, said Faugeras. The two parties to the agreement are Israel and the PA, both of which have since contracted with the EU to monitor border activity, said Faugeras. Any other arrangement would require negotiations over a new treaty, which would be time-consuming, said Faugeras. But even that 2005 agreement was never fully implemented when the Rafah crossing was first opened, he said. In 2005, only one of the three sections of the agreement was signed - the portion that related to the crossing of people. But the agreement to allow the passage of goods through Rafah was never signed. Similarly the security protocol, under which security risks and procedures would be clearly outlined by both Israel and the PA, was also never agreed on or implemented. Such a protocol, he said, would have set agreed-upon standards for suspicious objects and people as well as the passage of money. To finally implement this protocol, particularly with respect to the passage of goods, Israel, he said, must be more flexible with respect to the kind of products it wants to ban, and the Palestinians have to be more thorough in their inspections. The protocol is an essential tool, he said, both to ensure Israel's security and to guarantee freedom of movement for the Palestinians. Although he believed Rafah would only operate successfully once that protocol was in place, Faugeras said the EU's job was limited when it came to security. It has monitors at Rafah, and it also has a liaison office in Kerem Shalom, but it is not an enforcement body, said Faugeras; its role is to report observations to Israel and the PA. Faugeras said that in the last two months, he had played with the idea of expanding the mission beyond the Rafah terminal to help stop the smuggling through tunnels dug under the ground bordering the area. "But it's not the same job. Fighting smuggling is a totally different mission," he said, explaining that it could involve intelligence-sharing that would have to be worked out through new agreements, including with Egypt. "Rapidly we understood that EUBAM is not about to perform this kind of task," said Faugeras. A rapid return to Rafah can only be done through the 2005 agreement, he said. "I informed Brussels that EUBAM must keep to its primary task" and lobby for the full implementation of the agreement, said Faugeras. If EUBAM were to expand its mission, it would be more logical to explore placing a mission at the Karni crossing as well, for which the same tasks would be needed. He said he had spoken to the PA about the possibility, "but it is not their first aim. Their first aim is Rafah." What makes the situation difficult, he said, is that the interests of Israel and the Palestinians are at odds. "For the Palestinians, Rafah is the door of freedom, and for Israel it's the door of danger," he said.