Israel, Palestinian, Egyptian, US officials meet over Rafah

Plans for PA force to deploy near Karni by next month.

ppl under rafah sign 298 (photo credit: AP)
ppl under rafah sign 298
(photo credit: AP)
High level Israeli, Palestinian, US and Egyptian officials met in Jerusalem on Tuesday for the first time in a year to discuss opening the Rafah Crossing on a full time basis, a senior western diplomatic official said Tuesday. The official said this was the first meeting of the so-called "security working group," a group mandated by the Agreement on Movement and Access that was hammered out last year by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The meeting came a day after the European Union's foreign ministers extended by six months the EU Border Assistance Mission that monitors the crossing. Among those who attended Tuesday's meeting were Amos Gilad, head of the Political-Security Bureau at the Defense Ministry, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, United States Security Coordinator Lt. General Keith W. Dayton, Egyptian diplomatic officials and head of the EU mission at Rafah, Lt. General Pietro Pistolese. The official said it was held in a "collegial atmosphere," and that another meeting was set for January. "These people came together in a serious way to try to encourage normalization at Rafah and expand activities to get it open," he said. Currently the crossing from Gaza to Egypt is open about two days a week. The official said the discussions dealt only with the Rafah crossing, and not with the problem of arms smuggling in tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. "That would be like the Jerusalem police discussing crime in Beit Shemesh," he said. Although Israeli security officials are alarmed at the rate of arms smuggling into Gaza, they have expressed satisfaction recently that the explosives are not coming through the Rafah crossing. Nevertheless, since Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in June, the crossing - which was open pretty much full time since last December - has been open on an average of only twice a week. "The fact that the sides sat down across from each other was significant," the official said of Tuesday's meeting. Another official said the US was interested in "revitalizing" different components of the Agreement on Movement and Access, which, in addition to dealing with the Rafah crossing, also called for the Karni crossing to be opened continuously. Karni, because of security concerns, has been closed for all but about one-fourth of the past year. Dayton, however, is working on a plan to expand the opening of the crossing, and work began some two weeks ago on building a series of walls near the crossing to protect it. Dayton's tenure as the US security coordinator has, meanwhile, been recently extended by a year. The senior western diplomatic official said hundreds of members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard, the security detail that is securing the Rafah crossing, are scheduled to take up positions at Karni in December. The official said the Presidential Guard, which he said even Israel recognized as a "professional force," would "raise everybody's comfort level" regarding Karni. The plan to revamp Karni, the crossing widely considered the "economic life-blood of Gaza," will be funded by the international community, and is expected to cost $20 million. Some $5 million has already been donated. Work on redoing the crossing is expected to take a year, and will include building an operations center there, installing closed circuit television cameras, better lighting and security walls. The official said there was a real attempt to learn the lessons from Rafah and try to apply them to Karni, "and if that works, then to apply them at other crossings as well." The official also said it was "an open question" whether a third party, similar to the EU monitors at Rafah, would supervise the Karni crossing as well. He did say, however, that the Americans would not be that party. The official said the US was neither training nor funding the Palestinian Presidential Guard.