EU ready to resume Gaza border inspection mission after 16 years

Return of assistance operation is on offer from Brussels

Heavy fighting rages in the northern Gaza Strip as Israel has encircled the area, despite increasingly pressing calls for a humanitarian truce. Getty Images
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The European Union's border assistance mission (Eubam) at the Rafah crossing from Egypt into the Gaza, which has been on standby since 2007, is ready to be redeployed as soon as possible, the bloc's commission has told The National.

“Eubam Rafah stands ready to redeploy to the Rafah crossing point as soon as conditions allow, subject to a decision by the 27 EU member states and the agreement of the parties on the ground," an EU Commission representative said.

Discussions about a possible role for the EU in Gaza have resurfaced with the latest war, which the bloc's top diplomat Josep Borrell described on Monday as an "inflection point in history".

Many have also warned political change in the region is needed for EU officials to return to Gaza. But how to get there remains open to question.

It was Hamas's takeover of the enclave in 2007 and the withdrawal of the Palestinian Authority that caused the suspension of the EU's monitoring mission at the southern border crossing on the ground.

But it has never been disbanded and its staff could now go back, subject to a deal with the warring parties and international backers.

A month after the October 7 Hamas attacks against Israel, war continues to rage in the enclave. The Rafah border crossing remains closed except to some dual citizens, foreigners and severely wounded Palestinians.

Egypt, which controls its side of the crossing, fears a mass arrival of refugees. Meanwhile, the number of incoming aid lorries through the crossing is much lower than in pre-war times. Israel has imposed strict controls of what enters Gaza to limit Hamas's access to goods such as fuel.

In a speech to EU diplomats in Brussels, Mr Borrell said Europe had a "moral and political obligation to be involved – not only by providing aid but contributing to a durable solution."

"The important thing is to think about a comprehensive and definitive settlement, which is clearly out of reach today," he said.

Mr Borrell suggested Israel suspend its military operation in Gaza in return for the Red Cross getting access to hostages held by Hamas.

A peace force under UN mandate?

"I think that a humanitarian pause counterbalanced by an access to hostages with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a first step to their release is an initiative in which we should work," said Mr Borrell.

He added the war was the outcome "of a collective political and moral failure, which the Israeli and the Palestinian people are paying a high price for".

"This moral and political failure is due to our real lack of willingness to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem."

In parallel, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, gave a speech in which she outlined how she envisioned the end of the conflict.

This may include setting up an international peace force under UN mandate in the Gaza Strip and making sure Gaza cannot control or govern the enclave, she said.

"There should be only one Palestinian Authority and one Palestinian State," she said.

Sixteen years on 'standby'

The EU listed Hamas as a terror organisation in 2003 and the bloc has since maintained a no-contact policy with the Palestinian militant group.

Eubam Rafah was deployed at the border for two years, between 2005 and 2007, as a "third-party presence" meant to build confidence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Despite being in a self-described "standby mode" for 16 years, Eubam Rafah has continued to collaborate with the Palestinian Authority border agencies by mentoring and advising personnel.

Its 2023-24 budget was €2.3 million ($2.5 million), with a staff of 10 international and eight locals in its headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to its website.

In June, the European Council renewed its mandate for another year. It is currently headed by Bulgarian diplomat Nataliya Apostolova, who also heads a separate EU mission that trains Palestinian police called Eupol Copps.

Its redeployment is likely to be conditional on the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza enclave, an elusive prospect, said Martin Konecny, director of Brussels-based think tank, the European Middle East Project.

"It's possible some EU officials are talking about relaunching the mission because that would be the EU's contribution. But it's not relevant today," Mr Konecny told The National.

"The question is about whether there's a prospect for the Palestinian Authority's return. Eubam is a minor thing that would follow from that, not the other way around," he said.

Need for political agreement

Kelly Petillo, programme manager of the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, pointed at Eubam Rafah's difficult history and deep divisions among EU member states over the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"Even before October 7, the situation was very difficult," she told The National. "The EU’s no-contact policy with Hamas and overall territorial fragmentation made the operation challenging."

The idea of relaunching Eubam Rafah has been floated numerous times since 2007 but failed in the absence of a political compromise.

Brussels-based media outlet B2, which has followed the mission for years, reported that it has extended its mandate to support Eupol Copps, which is based in Ramallah.

"It will be difficult to see how this or other proposals could succeed without a wider political agreement," said Ms Petillo.

Since the start of the latest war, the EU has been trying to strike a delicate balance between calling for humanitarian pauses – which have been ignored – while also signalling its strong support for Israel to defend itself after Hamas's unprecedented attacks on Israeli territory that killed about 1,400 people.

The EU has so far sent 260 tonnes of aid to Egypt but only 50 to 55 tonnes have made it inside the Gaza Strip in the past 10 days as access remains restricted.

There have been discussions among countries such as France, the UK and the Netherlands to send aid via the sea but the plan has not come to pass. Jordan said on Monday it had sent medical aid to Gaza overnight via parachute.

Jordan's King Abdullah is expected to discuss the situation in Gaza during a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday with Ms von der Leyen.

But aside from announcements about humanitarian aid, coming up with fresh ideas to break the seemingly endless cycle of violence has proved more difficult.

The death toll has exceeded 10,000, including more than 4,800 children, after two weeks of intense retaliatory Israeli shelling of Gaza.

Ms von der Leyen excluded Israeli security presence in Gaza and any forced displacement of its Palestinian population.

"All of this may look overly ambitious, as the war still rages on, but we must spare no effort to keep the hope alive, to find a lasting solution, based on two states, living side by side in peace and security," she said.

"It is time for an international effort towards peace in the Middle East. And we will play our part."

Updated: November 06, 2023, 6:17 PM