Mofaz hopes for Rafah checkpoint deal

Defense Minister to meet with PA officials to discuss customs and security.

rafah arab women 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
rafah arab women 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
EU to have 'active' monitoring role at Rafah The EU has accepted in principle Israel's demand that the third-party to be stationed at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt have "enforceable authority," Minister Haim Ramon said Tuesday. Ramon met Tuesday with EU officials working with Israeli and Palestinian officials trying to define the role of the Rafah monitor team. One official close to the negotiations said that the parties are likely to "wrap things up" at a meeting Wednesday night between Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, PA Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan and Quartet disengagement envoy James Wolfensohn. Last week differences emerged between Israel and the EU's vision of the third-party role, with Israel saying it envisioned a "hands-on" role for the EU at the site, and EU officials saying that they were not going to be border guards and customs officials in place of the Palestinians. The official close to the negotiations said what was emerging was a situation whereby the sides agree that "there are certain things the team will and will not do. "They are going to actively monitor the crossing," the official said. "They will walk around the building, look at the computer screens, try to identify errors and omissions where the Palestinian inspectors did not follow proper procedure, and did not properly check a bag or screen someone." But, the official said, the EU staff at the site will not check the bags themselves or chase after someone who has avoided going through the metal detectors. That job will have to be done by the Palestinians at the site. According to the official, one issue of contention remains Israeli surveillance at the site, and whether Israel will receive real-time pictures from the crossing, or rather just receive the information once a day. Israeli security officials refused to elaborate on the kind of security measures it would like to see installed at the crossing, saying that because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing discussions, it would be best to keep details out of the public eye until both sides reach an agreement. The officials refused to divulge whether Israel would like to see the same kind of security measures installed at the Erez terminal crossing also placed at the Rafah crossing in the future. The recently refurbished Erez terminal crossing has been equipped with all the latest electronic and technological know-how to process Palestinians using the crossing. While it is currently closed because of the ongoing terror threats, soldiers were successfully able to isolate the female suicide bomber caught wearing explosives when attempting to pass through the crossing in June. From the moment Palestinians enter the Israeli side of the crossing, they are inspected electronically, with the soldiers monitoring them issuing instructions via intercoms. Electronic cameras monitor those passing through the terminal and electronic equipment can alert security forces if explosives are detected. At no point is there any physical contact between soldiers manning the terminal and the Palestinian civilians. The types of agreement reached at Rafah are expected to set a precedent for similar arrangements to be put in place at Gaza's seaport and airport when they are set up. Israel and the PA have agreed that the Rafah crossing will serve Palestinians with valid identification cards and VIPs entering and exiting Gaza. The crossing will also be used for goods going from Gaza to Egypt. Goods coming into Gaza, however, as well as people without Palestinian identification cards, will use a soon to be built terminal at Kerem Shalom. Another issue still to be settled is how long only Palestinians with identification cards will be able to use the crossing, and when it will be open for everyone. Israeli security officials said that Israel also wants to have a say over who can be barred from entering Gaza. But Dahlan said earlier in the week that the Palestinians would not permit any kind of "black list." Ever since Israel left the Gaza Strip in August, the border crossing has remained closed except for the first few days after Israel's withdrawal, when the border turned into a free passage, with Egyptian Border Police doing nothing to prevent thousands of Palestinians entering Egypt freely, and vast amounts of weapons being smuggled back into the Gaza Strip. "Since the disengagement, Israel no longer retains a presence in Gaza, the only way it can prevent terrorist or enemy elements from entering is by monitoring the identities of those who use the crossing. It is not only in Israel's interest, but also that of Egypt and the PA to ensure that al-Qaida operatives and senior terrorist commanders from abroad are prevented from reaching Gaza," the security sources said. According to the sources, European Union officials are being extremely cooperative in relation to Israel's demands. On Tuesday, Mofaz met with Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn to discuss the problems over the reopening of the Rafah crossing, as well as examining ways to improve the economic situation in Gaza. The two discussed the possibility of opening a second goods crossing aside from the Karni crossing in order to facilitate the entry of agricultural goods into Gaza. This would mean that if a terror attack necessitated the closing of Karni, another alternative route would be available. Mofaz and Wolfensohn also discussed ways of helping the Palestinians to refurbish the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, especially in the areas where the former settlements were located. Several weeks ago, Wolfensohn admonished Israel for moving too slowly on the border crossing issue. In a letter he wrote to the UN, Russia, Britain and the EU, Wolfensohn wrote "the government of Israel with its important security concerns, is loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions." Chief of General Staff Lt.Gen. Dan Halutz told reporters on Tuesday, that in the event a decision is made to reopen the Rafah international border crossing in the near future, Israel will be prepared. Refusing to divulge further details, Halutz remarked that cooperation with Egypt is constantly improving. Halutz said he was not concerned over reports that al-Qaida elements had already infiltrated into the Gaza Strip, noting that the name is often generally used as a scare tactic and does not always reflect the situation on the ground. Halutz spoke to reporters after meeting with President Moshe Katsav.