EU-Gaza mission on the beach
13.12.11 @ 18:12
BRUSSELS - Gaza is very close to Europe geographically. The Europeans for a very brief period in recent history were there to help monitor the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt. Some still remain parked on the Israeli seafront waiting to re-engage.
The EU Border Assistance Management (EUbam-Rafah) mission has been downsized to a minimum of 13 staff under its chief, French colonel Alain Faugeras, who currently reside in the beach town of Ashkelon, on the southern Mediterranean coast of Israel. From May to December 2011 alone, the EU paid €1.4 million on the frozen project.
The Ashkelon headquarters of EUbam-Rafah were always a point of controversy since the Europeans had to drive all the way around the Strip to monitor the entry of Palestinians to and from Gaza. To be precise, Eubam-Rafah was overseeing the management of the Rafah crossing point (RCP) on the Palestinian side of the Philadelphi Corridor that separates Gaza from Egypt.
Leaving Gaza, a bus will take you the few hundred meters - or you can walk across the open parking lot - to a rundown building that serves as the Egyptian crossing point. Entering or leaving Egypt, it normally takes two to three hours of waiting in a dirty and smoky hallway to get a simple stamp.
The Europeans went there to speed up this process on the Palestinian side. A new scanner was brought in, plus a conveyor belt from the Rafah International Airport (paid for by Europe and destroyed by Israel), as well as new booths to check and stamp passports.
In the summer of 2005, as Israel was getting out of the Gaza Strip, the Europeans deployed a small but effective team of monitors to Rafah as part of the Agreement on Movement and Access.
The EUbam-Rafah civilian mission was perhaps former EU high representative Javier Solana's favorite baby.
It was deployed rapidly and considered an immediate success due to the incremental number of Palestinians passing daily between November 2005 and January 2006. But there was a catch.
Ever willing to accommodate all parties to the conflict, the Europeans convinced the Palestinians to set up surveillance cameras within the Rafah crossing point. These cameras were linked in real-time to the Kerem Shalom crossing point in the south-east corner of the Gaza Strip. From Kerem Shalom, the Israelis had final say on which Palestinians were allowed to enter and which were not.
Alerted by a European liaison officer on the basis of an israeli request, the Palestinians manning the Rafah crossing would detain members of parties or stop bags (smetimes full of money) going into Gaza.
The Europeans were perceived as being complicit in the detention of Palestinians by Palestinians, while also trying to fulfill Israeli security demands.
Palestinian demands for sovereignty and Israel's security concerns continues to elude any third party involved in trying to resolve this perennial conflict.
Just a few months after the EU increased EUbam-Rafah capacity to over 80 staff in January 2006, Palestinian militant group Hamas won the Palestinian election and Israel began calling for Rafah to be closed for security reasons.
In June 2006, the militant branch of Hamas, the Al-Qassam Brigades, launched an attack on Kerem Shalom, killing two and kidnapping an Israeli soldier - Gilad Shalit, who was freed in a large-scale prisoner swap only this year.
The EU mission quickly dwindled and was officially suspended in June 2007 when Hamas repelled the rival Fatah faction's attempt to take over the Gaza crossings. By 2011, the Europeans were nowhere to be seen at the Rafah crossing or elsewhere in the Strip - except for the occasional foreign workers at UN agencies or one Frenchman at an archaeological site in central Gaza.
The loss of credibility and visibility for the European Union is astounding. Of still greater concern is that amid the ongoing Gaza siege, the few remaining Europeans in the region are parked on the beach in south Israel.
One of the most repugnant examples of neglect in Gaza is the raw sewage constantly seeping into our Mediterranean Sea.
EUbam-rafah is a great shame, not just in terms of a lost opportunity (Eubam-Rafah could have been replicated elsewhere) but also in adding yet another symbol of waste to this damaged part of the world.
The EU diplomatic service issued a rebuttal to this op-ed on Thursday (15 December).
Correction: This op-ed was amended on Friday. The original text said Faugeras lives in the Dan Gardens beach hotel. In fact he rents a flat elsewhere in town
The writer is editor of Revolve Magazine and works for the Council for European-Palestinian Relations (CEPR) in Brussels