How could an EU relaunch of Rafah border training programme work?

Scheme which trained Palestinian Authority officials to manage border controls was suspended after Hamas took over Gaza

The European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Rafah was initially meant to build confidence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Photo: EEAS
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The EU has said it was asked to relaunch a border training programme at the Rafah crossing in the south of the Gaza Strip nearly two decades after it was suspended.

This raises a number of questions, not least because the border crossing was seized by Israel on May 7 despite a 50-year old agreement that gave Egypt partial control over the border.

The city of Rafah is where most of the recent offensive by the Israeli army has taken place in its eight-month war which has killed more than 36,000 people.

The death of dozens of people in an air raid on Sunday triggered strong criticism of Israel including from allies in the EU.

Before Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip intensified in Rafah, about 1.3 million internally displaced Palestinians had headed there to escape bombardments in the north of the enclave.

However, about 1 million have left the city in the past week, following an intense escalation in Israeli air strikes.

Why was the training mission suspended?

The Israeli military operation in Gaza came in response to Hamas-led incursions in October that killed around 1,200 people. Israel has vowed to continue with the war until it destroys Hamas.

The Rafah border crossing had been managed since 2007 on the Gaza side by Hamas authorities and on the other side by Egypt.

It was the Hamas takeover of the strip that led to the suspension of the EU border mission, named EUBAM Rafah (European Border Assistance Mission).

It had been in place for two years as a "third-party presence" meant to build confidence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

We understand that the EU wants to take a more involved role in the region and in this particular conflict
Shirel Levi, spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy to the EU

Who wants the EU in Rafah?

The EU has so far been on the sidelines of diplomatic efforts to end the war that are led by the US and Israel's Arab neighbours including Egypt.

Yet it has played an important role as a humanitarian actor in the region and it started two missions to Palestine based on the Oslo Accords.

In addition to EUBAM Rafah, which trained PA officials in managing border controls, was Eupol Copps, training the Palestinian police.

In its current standby mode, EUBAM Rafah has 10 international and eight local staff. Its 2023-24 budget was €2.3 million ($2.5 million).

The EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said he had been asked to work on reactivating EUBAM Rafah but did not say which countries or institutions were behind the request.

Questioned by The National, an EU representative declined to give names, but it is understood they may include the main players in the region including Egypt and Palestinian representatives.

An Israeli representative in Brussels confirmed they had been in touch with EU officials on the matter.

"These missions tend to be guidelines and training. Let's see what they can put forward. Any assistance that could help the situation would be better," said Shirel Levi, spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy to the EU.

"We don’t want the same people who were already there to continue doing the same thing because it was clearly not working," Ms Levi told The National.

"We understand that the EU wants to take a more involved role in the region and in this particular conflict, so this is one way for them to engage with already existing tools."

Any relaunch of EUBAM Rafah would require unanimous approval from the bloc's 27 member countries.

When would EUBAM Rafah restart?

An EU official said it was unlikely to be relaunched until a ceasefire was reached in Gaza, which may be months away.

Who would represent the Palestinian side is also unclear since the PA left Gaza after the Hamas takeover in 2007.

An agreement would require involvement of Palestinian authorities, Israel, Egypt, the US and the UN, said the EU official.

The idea is that EU customs specialists, sent by their own member countries, would assist in training Palestinians in inspecting humanitarian goods entering the enclave.

The EU wants to support the PA as an alternative to Hamas.

The Israeli government rejects any return of the PA to the Gaza Strip but has not given details of its postwar vision of the strip's government.

Israel took punitive measures against the PA after Norway, Spain and Ireland said they would recognise a Palestinian state in a move that was criticised by Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced this month he would withhold tax revenue Israel collects on behalf of the PA.

What is the situation like on the ground in Rafah?

Egyptian troops are stationed on their side, alongside intelligence officials. The General Intelligence Service (GIS) is one of the main negotiators from the Egyptian side in the ceasefire talks.

Despite the war, the border authority buildings and the separation fence between Gaza and Egypt are still standing.

The destruction is in the city itself and its refugee camps. Several sources have confirmed Israel has been co-ordinating attacks with the Egyptian military to avoid hitting the fence, however, accidents have happened.

In October, an Israeli tank accidentally hit an Egyptian position near the border, injuring seven Egyptian soldiers.

An Egyptian soldier was killed in cross-border fire on Monday, shot dead by Israeli troops, military officials from both countries said. The incident is under investigation.

It comes amid heightened tensions between Egypt and Israel following Israel's offensive against Hamas and its takeover of the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing three weeks ago.

The shooting has stirred controversy in Egypt and a funeral for the dead soldier held in his home province of Fayoum on Tuesday was attended by hundreds.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 3:15 PM