Pistolese: Gaza must not become a big prison

An open border with Gaza will promote peace, head of European observer force at Rafah crossing tells 'Post.'

Palestinians Rafah 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinians Rafah 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
Gen. Pietro Pistolese has a weakness when it comes to Israel: he is among those who still believe peace is possible. It isn't the country and the climate, which reminds him of his hometown in Italy. He is here on a determined mission to help bring stability to an otherwise volatile region. Today Pistolese is head of the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) stationed at the Rafah Crossing into the Gaza Strip. A self-proclaimed optimist, the 66-year-old general has not given up hope of a better future, even though he is no stranger to the dramatic ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1994, he was one of the three founders of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), which was set up after US-born Jewish settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein gunned down Muslim worshipers at the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 and wounding scores more. He later served as a senior European monitor in the first Palestinian elections in 1996 and is a veteran of several peacekeeping tours, including service in the Balkans. But none of the previous missions, he says, compared to his current one - monitoring the flow of human traffic at Gaza's only gateway to the outside world. A career military officer with 47 years of service already under his belt, Pistolese is currently in command of 70 EU monitors who oversee the Palestinian management of the Rafah Crossing. That's not a simple task considering the current conflict. He is working to normalize pedestrian traffic at a time when the Palestinian Authority's national unity government's refusal to recognize Israel has stymied relations between both sides. His mission monitors a crossing that has been closed for security reasons 79 percent of the time since June 25. On top of that, the initial Palestinian government which signed this agreement no longer exists and he does not know if the current one recognizes his authority. He has dealt exclusively with the offices of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah guard, which mans the border crossing. On May 24, EUBAM's mandate will expire. Both the Palestinians and Israel have asked EUBAM to remain. It's a task that Pistolese wants to continue since he believes the normalized flow of Palestinians at the crossing into Egypt plays a vital role in the peace process. But in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post last week - his first with the Israeli press - the general warned that if Israel does not allow the Rafah terminal to remain open, the EU will need to reconsider extending its observer team's presence in the Strip. "If the border is not open, the mission is not useful," Pistolese says. He adds that Israel must fulfill the terms of its present mandate and allow the crossing to remain open on a daily basis. He did not, however, state a number limit by which the EU would consider that its mission there was futile. Pistolese's remarks should not be taken lightly. If the EU abandons the Rafah mission, Israel will be left helpless in controlling the Gaza border terminal. In Israel there is a fear that without EUBAM, the Fatah force could lose control of the border crossing to Hamas. This would leave Israel with only one choice - invade the Strip and take over control of the crossing. "He [Pestolese] is doing a good job and we hope he will not leave," a senior official in Defense Minster Amir Peretz's office told the Post. While the official explained that Israel's decision to close the crossing was based on security considerations, he admitted that the government - represented by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Military-Diplomatic Bureau - would most likely need to concede to Pistolese's demands and keep the crossing open on a daily basis. According to statistics provided by the mission, the crossing was initially open almost all the time, with an average daily crossing rate of 1,318 people. That scenario changed on June 25, 2006, the same day Cpl. Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Since then the crossing has been open for a mere 57 days, or 21% of the time. The total number of passengers who've crossed through since then peaked at 111,267, compared to the 279,436 who crossed since it opened in November 2005 until its closing on June 25, 2006. Had the crossing not been closed, estimations are that 641,866 people would have passed in and out since November 2005. Israel maintains that it closes the crossing for security reasons. The most memorable incident in which it shut it down was last December when PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh arrived at the crossing carrying suitcases Israel said to be containing $35 million. For all of 2006, Hamas used the crossing to transfer $60m. into the Gaza Strip. Since that time, however, according to EUBAM, Hamas has not brought cash through the border. The general argues that shutting the terminal down is the wrong approach in light of its importance for the Palestinians. "The crossing is the only way for the Palestinians to travel abroad. If it is not open, then the Strip becomes a big prison, and we cannot put these people in prison because there are a lot of people who want to live in peace and look after the welfare of their family and their jobs," Pistolese says. He warns that the desperation created by unemployment and poverty helped otherwise peaceful people fall prey to terrorism. "If you do not give them the possibility to evolve, to renounce their position, they are desperate," he explains. "I saw people desperate and I do not want to see people desperate because this is not a way of peace." He also says that it is in Israel's security interests to keep the terminal open. When it is open all week long there it's possible to carefully inspect the average flow, while it is difficult to do as thorough a job when there is a bottleneck of human traffic that is built up because the gates have been closed. EUBAM began monitoring the Rafah terminal in November 2005 and was established in what has been called the "Rafah Crossing Agreement," signed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority under Abbas and the EU. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mediated between the sides. But while the Rafah border crossing into Egypt is located in Gaza and is manned by Abbas's presidential guard, Israel ultimately maintains control over the terminal and can shut it down. According to EUBAM, the Rafah Crossing can only be open when an Israeli liaison officer, a Palestinian border official and EU observers are present all together at that monitoring center in Kerem Shalom. When any one of the three parties is not present, the border must be shut down, EUBAM said. Israel maintains a liaison office at Kerem Shalom, filled with wall-to-wall television screens, where IDF officers and EU monitors coordinate the movement of people through the nearby Rafah Crossing. The IDF officers are allowed to examine all the Palestinians entering and leaving Gaza and ask the EU monitors to detain people at the terminal and even prevent them from crossing through if they are suspected terrorists. Israel also controls observer access to the crossing itself, because the EUBAM staff travels from their home base in Ashkelon to Rafah via the Kerem Shalom terminal. Pistolese argues that there is little danger to Israel from those who cross and thus there is no need to shut the crossing down. As proof he says that Israel rarely asks to stop people. In fact, he says, it's the Egyptians who reject many more Palestinians on the next stage of the journey when they arrive at their border. According to EUBAM, Egypt has turned back on average 59 Palestinians a day since June 25 for a host of problems, not all of them security-related. The real security issues for Israel involving weapons smuggling do not occur at the Rafah Crossing itself, but rather outside his mission's purview at other points along the Israeli-Egyptian border. If Israel were to allow his team's return to normalized activity at the border, Pistolese says that the operations there could be a model for an expanded EU mandate to also service a rebuilt Gaza airport and to create a new seaport. He urges Israel to consider these two additional exit and entry points for Palestinians to travel and export and import goods to the outside world. "The airport and the seaport can be monitored as we are doing in Rafah," Pistolese says. "The airport is exactly the same and instead of coming by bus, they arrive by plane, you check them and they can enter and leave according to more or less the same rules." While he admits that its opening does seem far away at the moment, Pistolese believes that a fully accessible Gaza would benefit the economy and thus foster improved conditions for peace. Already, he says, the Rafah operation is one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians regularly meet and maintain normal relations. This helps with confidence building between the two sides for the future, Pistolese says. In spite of his dire warnings about what would happen if Israel does not open the border daily, Pistolese says he is still encouraged by the number of people who have crossed in and out and that for the first time Palestinians have been trained according to international standards to maintain their own border. So in spite of all the tensions and hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis, and various border issues, Pistolese says he is still optimistic that peace is possible. As proof that the region is not doomed to continually play out its past history of violence, he says, he has only to look at the European Union - comprised of 27 countries, many of whom were former military foes. This week marks 50 years since the signing of the Rome Accord, which laid the groundwork for the creation of the modern EU, he notes. Like his father before him, Pistolese says, he is a soldier. But he has carried out his career at a time when the European countries have banded together to create one larger governmental unit. Pistolese recalls how his uncle died in battle against Austria, during World War I. Pistolese says that neither his father nor his uncle could have imagined that a time would come when these old foes would unite. One day, he says, he is certain Israel and the Palestinians will do the same. "This is really important, to learn how countries like Germany and France, who fought against one another in the past, now are living in peace," he says. By working to help Palestinians normalize their lives, Pistolese says, "the EU is now playing an important role in this area to reach peace."