Gaza is really very close to Europe, geographically. The Europeans were there for a very brief period of our contemporary history to help monitor the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt. Some still remain parked on the Israeli seafront waiting to engage again, eventually.
The EU Border Assistance Management (BAM) has been downsized to a minimum of 13 staff under Head of Mission, French Colonel Alain Faugueras, residing in the beach city of Ashkelon, on the southern Mediterranean coast of Israel. From May to December 2011, 1.4 million Euros has been blown on this suspended mission.
The headquarters of EUBAM-Rafah were always controversial, 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 work across the open parking lot – to the equally rundown administrative building that serves as the Egyptian crossing point. Entering or leaving Egypt, there is no telling how long the bureaucratic process of getting a simple stamp will take – usually between 2-3 hours – as you wait in the dusty and smoky and dirty hall.
The Europeans were there to speed up this process on the Palestinian side. A new scanner machine 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, Israel was leaving the Gaza Strip and the Europeans were deploying a small but effective team of monitors to Rafah as part of the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA).
The EUBAM-Rafah civilian mission was perhaps former EU High Representative, Javier Solana’s favorite baby within the nascent Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) apparatus.
The CSDP mission 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. Like the headquarters, European engagement was doomed.
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, the Palestinians manning the Rafah crossing would thus detain members of parties or withhold suitcases of money going into Gaza.
The Europeans were perceived – regardless of their impartial third party mandate – as being complicit in the detention of Palestinians by Palestinians, while also trying to fulfill Israeli security demands.
Reconciling both Palestinian demands for sovereignty and Israel’s security concerns has been and continues to be an impossible feat to complete for any third party involved in trying to resolve this perennial conflict.
Only a few months after increasing the EUBAM-Rafah capacity to over 80 staff, Hamas won the Palestinian election in late January 2006. The impartial position of the Europeans became difficult to prove as Israel increasingly called for the Rafah crossing to be closed for security reasons.
In June 2006, the militant branch of Hamas, al-Qassam Brigades, launched an attack on Kerem Shalom, killing two and kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Over five years later, Shalit was released for a pending promise of over 1.000 Palestinian prisoners in return in October 2011.
The EU mission dwindled quickly after 2006 and was officially suspended in June 2007 when Hamas repelled Fatah’s attempt to take-over the Gaza crossings. By 2011, the Europeans were nowhere to be seen at the Rafah crossing or elsewhere within the Strip – except for the occasional foreign workers at UN agencies or one Frenchman at an archaeological site in central Gaza.
The loss of legitimacy as a third party for the European Union is simply astounding, but more worrisome is that with the ongoing siege of Gaza, the few remaining Europeans are still parked on the beach in southern Israel. European tax-payer money is going to pay people to do nothing!
This a great shame – not only for the lost opportunity of playing a positive role, (EUBAM could have been replicated positively elsewhere) but also for the extreme waste visited upon the Strip. The most severe and repugnant example is the raw sewage seeping into the Mediterranean – this middle sea shared most of all with Europe.
Stuart Reigeluth is Managing Editor of Revolve Magazine and works at the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR) in Brussels . The EU diplomatic service issued a rebuttal to this op-ed on Thursday, December 15, 2011.