How the EU helps Israel to strangle Gaza


Since 23 January 2008, we have witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of a mass breakout by Palestinians from their Gaza prison, a breakout made possible by Hamas blowing up stretches of the Israeli-built border wall between Gaza and Egypt, near Rafah, and bulldozing other stretches of it. 


The breakout was a reaction to Israel’s strangulation of Gaza, which had intensified in the preceding weeks with Israel’s closure of the crossings between Israel and Gaza to the passage of people and goods, on a more or less permanent basis.


But how can Israel strangle Gaza when there is supposed to be an international crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a crossing which is not controlled by Israelis?


Certainly, that was the promise held out in the comprehensive Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) [1], signed more than two years ago, on 15 November 2005, by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).  The first of the six components of this Agreement was that there would be a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah, controlled by the PA and Egypt, on terms set out in the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing Point (APRC) that formed part of the Agreement.  At the time, this was hailed as an historic step on the road to a Palestinian state – for the first time, it was said, Palestinians would have access to the outside world free from Israeli control.


How come then that Israel is still able to strangle Gaza?  The answer is that, thanks to the good offices of the EU, which has a role in managing the Rafah crossing under the Agreement, Israel has always had a veto on the opening of the crossing.  As we will see, in practice, whenever Israel doesn’t want the crossing open, the EU doesn’t open it.


The crossing was open almost every day from 25 November 2005 to 24 June 2006, though not for 24 hours a day as intended (see, for example, [2]).  However, after 24 June 2006, when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinians, the EU has, at Israel’s insistence, prevented it opening regularly and has kept it closed completely since 9 June 2007, after Hamas took control of Gaza.


Another point: the Agreement doesn’t provide for commercial traffic into Gaza from Egypt via the Rafah crossing, because Israel doesn’t trust Egypt and the PA to prevent the importation of arms.  Theoretically, it did provide for commercial traffic out of Gaza into Egypt, but this has never occurred in practice.


Quartet: midwife of AMA

The so-called Middle East Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) was the midwife of the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA).  In April 2005, the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, was appointed Quartet envoy with special responsibility for making arrangements for Gaza in the event of Israeli “disengagement”, which took place a few months later in August 2005.  The AMA was largely his work, but Condoleeza Rice (US Secretary of State) and Javier Solana (EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy) were present to announce it publicly in Jerusalem on 15 November 2005.


Rice said that the Agreement as a whole “is intended to give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives” [3].  Of its arrangements for a crossing into Egypt, she said:


“First, for the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. This will be through an international crossing at Rafah, whose target opening date is November 25th.”


Solana said of these arrangements:


“This is the first time that a border is opened and not controlled by the Israelis. … So as you can imagine, this is a very important step that is the first time that takes place.”


One could be forgiven for thinking that the US and the EU had made arrangements for a border crossing between Gaza and Egypt that was “not controlled by the Israelis” and that from now on Gaza couldn’t be strangled by Israel.


EU Third Party

In practice, however, the Rafah crossing has been controlled by the Israelis.  Even though Israel has no personnel, military or otherwise, physically present at the crossing, it has been able to close the crossing at will, just as it can close the four crossings (Karni, Erez, Sufa and Kerem Shalom) between Gaza and Israel itself, where it has military personnel physically present.


This has come about because, under the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing Point (APRC), a Third Party must have personnel present at the Rafah crossing before it is allowed to open.  The Third Party is the EU – and the EU has always refused to man the crossing when Israel didn’t want the crossing open.


The EU personnel have the following duties at the crossing:


“The 3rd party will have the authority to ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the Rafah crossing point and the terms of this agreement. In case of non-compliance, the 3rd party has the authority to order the re-examination and reassessment of any passenger, luggage, vehicle or goods. While the request is being processed, the person, luggage, vehicle or cargo in question will not be allowed to leave the premises of the Rafah crossing point.” [1]


For this purpose, the EU established the grandly titled EU Border Assistance Mission for the Rafah Crossing Point, or EU BAM Rafah (see its website here [4]).  This is a force of less than a hundred, mostly policemen, which is based in Ashkelon in Israel.


In addition to these EU monitors, who are physically present at the crossing, Israeli security forces are able to monitor activity at the crossing remotely, via CCTV and other data links from the crossing, and can make a record of the individuals crossing.  The Israeli monitors are based in Israel at the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, where a “liaison office” is located (for liaison between Israel and the PA).  One of the duties of the EU, as the Third Party to the APRC, is to “lead” this office:


“A liaison office, led by the 3rd party, will receive real-time video and data feed of the activities at Rafah and will meet regularly to review implementation of this agreement, resolve any disputes arising from this agreement, and perform other tasks specified in this agreement.” [1]


Israeli veto

Ridiculous as it may seem, the EU takes the view that the opening of the crossing may be disputed by Israeli representatives in the Liaison Office and that, if Israel refuses to agree to the opening of the crossing, the EU doesn’t send its monitors to the crossing, as required for its opening under the terms of the APRC.  In practice, therefore, Israel has a veto over the opening of the crossing, which, according to Rice and Solana, is “not controlled by the Israelis”. 


Lest you think that this is the stuff of my imagination, I invite you to go the FAQ section of the EU BAM website.  There, the answer given to the question: “What is our capacity in order to reopen the border? [sic]” is:


“According to the agreements EUBAM has no executive power. EUBAM mandate is to lead the Liaison Office and actively monitor, verify and evaluate PA performance with regard to the implementation of the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing Point [APRC]. EUBAM does therefore not have the authority to open the crossing without the agreement and cooperation of both parties. [my emphasis] What we can do, however, is to mediate between them and we have worked very hard to try and get RCP [Rafah Crossing Point] open for as many days as possible since the 25th of June 2006.” [5]


That is as plain as a pikestaff: in the opinion of the EU, the APRC gives Israel a veto on whether the crossing should open.  There is absolutely nothing in the APRC to warrant such an interpretation – and it is in flat contradiction to the words of Rice and Solana that the crossing would “not be controlled by Israelis”. 


In fact, the EU goes further and interprets the APRC to mean that Israeli representatives don’t even have to go the Liaison Office to prevent the crossing opening.  The EU interpretation of the APRC is that, if Israel isn’t represented in the Liaison Office, then the crossing cannot open.  That is clear from the answer to another FAQ: “Why the liaison office is based at Kerem Shalom? [sic]”, which is:


“The Liaison Office is at Kerem Shalom because that was agreed between the parties prior to the initial deployment of EUBAM. As the Liaison Office can only operate with the presence of both Parties and EUBAM, it makes no difference where it is, as either party could effectively close the crossing just by refusing to deploy their Liaison Officers in the Liaison Office.” [5]


So, Israeli liaison personnel have merely to stay in their beds in order to keep the crossing closed, the crossing which according to Rice and Solana is “not controlled by the Israelis”.


To reach the Rafah crossing from their base in Israel, the EU monitors have to pass through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza, so Israel could, if it wished, physically prevent them taking up their station at Rafah.  It has been reported that Israel has used this to prevent the opening of the Rafah crossing.  However, it is clear from the foregoing that Israel has never needed to block the monitors physically, since it has been the unwavering policy of the EU never to attempt to open the Rafah crossing if Israel says it doesn’t want it open.


(The EU BAM website says that the original plan was for the EU monitors to be based inside Gaza at Rafah itself – and a base was almost complete in March 2006 – but the plan was abandoned because of the “political and security situation” [5].  The EU monitors could have been based in Egypt, making it impossible for Israel to prevent them travelling to the crossing.).


EU statements

For a few weeks after 25 June 2006, when the Rafah crossing ceased opening on a regular basis, EU BAM press statements paint a picture of it trying hard to persuade Israel to allow the crossing to be opened occasionally for humanitarian purposes.


For example, a statement on 6 July 2006 [6] announces that the crossing will be open that day to enable 250 people waiting on the Egyptian side to cross – the border had been closed from 25 June 2006.  It describes this as an “EU BAM initiative, with the agreement of the Israeli Government and the cooperation of the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities”.


But the Israeli Government must have withdrawn its permission, because the next press statement on 15 July 2006 [7] reports that the previous evening “two breaches were blown in the border wall not far from Rafah Crossing Point” and “hundreds of people crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, and many also crossed from the Gaza Strip into Egypt”. The statement continued:


“The Rafah Border Crossing has been closed since 25th June, despite EUBAM efforts to open it for at least the hundreds of passengers stuck in the Egyptian side of the terminal whose humanitarian situation has caused concern.  Until the incident yesterday these people had been in the terminal for 19 days. During the period since 25th June both EUBAM monitors and the PA officials who run RCP have been on permanent standby and ready to open the crossing at short notice.”


According to a press statement on 14 December 2006 [8], after the crossing opened that day, “the Government of Israel had requested that the crossing be closed due to the expected arrival of Prime Minister Haniyeh, who was reportedly carrying a large sum of money”.  However, in a stout display of resistance to Israel, “the Head of Mission, decided to merely suspend operations in order to clarify the situation”.  The press statement explained that “this decision was made after consultations with Brussels, the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel”.


Doubtless, the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, was party to this decision to “suspend operations” at the crossing at the request of Israel, the crossing which he said is “not controlled by Israelis”. 


Restrictions on people

It is clear that, through the good offices of the EU, Israel has a veto on when the opening of Rafah crossing.  It is worth noting that, in the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing Point (APRC), Israel forced the Palestinian Authority to put restrictions on who is allowed to cross when it is open.  Thus the ARPC says:


“Use of the Rafah crossing will be restricted to Palestinian ID card holders and others by exception in agreed categories with prior notification to the GoI [Government of Israel] and approval of senior PA leadership.” [1]


The PA has to notify Israel 48 hours in advance about the crossing of those in the exceptional categories (diplomats, foreign investors, foreign representatives of recognized international organizations and humanitarian cases) and, although Israel doesn’t have a veto on an individual crossing (except by closing the crossing altogether), the PA has to give Israel a reason for overriding any Israeli objection.


In addition, under the APRC, Israel is allowed to request that the PA ban nominated Palestinian ID card holders from using the crossing and the PA was obliged to consult with Israel, and the EU monitors, in the event of it refusing an Israeli request.


Other AMA components

In theory, the Agreement on Movement Access (AMA) was genuinely comprehensive.  In addition to the Rafah crossing, it was concerned with, in Rice’s words:


“Second, Israel and the Palestinians will upgrade and expand other crossings for people and cargo between Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. …


“Third, Palestinians will be able to move between Gaza and the West Bank; specifically, bus convoys are to begin about a month from now and truck convoys are to start a month after that.


“Fourth, the parties will reduce obstacles to movement within the West Bank. …


“Fifth, construction of a Palestinian seaport can begin. The Rafah model will provide a basis for planned operations.


“Sixth, the parties agree on the importance of the airport. Israel recognizes that the Palestinian Authority will want to resume construction on the airport.”


Virtually nothing of this has been realised in practice either.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory compiles fortnightly reports on the implementation of the AMA.  Its report for 14-27 November 2007 [2] comments as follows on the implementation of points 3 to 6:





What now?

If Gaza is to be immune from strangulation by Israel in future, then the Israeli veto over the opening of the Rafah crossing will have to be ended.  In addition, the crossing must cater for commercial traffic into Gaza, which is banned under the present Agreement.


It’s difficult to believe that this would ever be acceptable to Israel (or the US), since it increases the chances of Hamas and other groups importing arms into Gaza.  The difficulty for the US and Israel is that the present situation, with a border imperfectly policed by Egypt, and liable to be breached in a major way at any time, is even more conducive to arms reaching Gaza.


Israel may decide to retake control of the Gaza/Egypt border militarily.



David Morrison

5 February 2008

Labour & Trade Union Review




Since the foregoing was written, EU BAM has amended the FAQ section of its website (including the text quoted above from that section).  But it still maintains that, under the Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing Point (APRC), the crossing cannot be opened without the consent of the Israelis, even though, according to Javier Solana, it is “not controlled by the Israelis”.




[1]  See