European Observers: No Request to Return to Gaza Border Crossing

Spokesman for the inoperative mission of European observers says without monitors, international standards for security checks at the Rafah crossing may not be upheld.

The inoperative mission of European observers, who under a 2005 agreement should be monitoring the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, said Thursday they had not received a request to return – this despite the crossing's imminent opening.

Benoit Cusin, the spokesman for the European Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) expressed concern that without the European monitors, international standards for security checks and passengers' rights may not be upheld.

The Egyptian government announced on Wednesday that starting Saturday, the Rafah border crossing would be open each day from 9 am to 9 pm, except for Fridays and holidays.

The European observers would only be able to resume their work at the crossing at the formal invitation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the parties to the 2005 agreement that established the mission - and not as a result of any unilateral action by Egypt.

Egypt would, however, also have to agree and cooperate for the monitors to be able to return, spokesman Cusin said. They were ready to reactivate the mission any time, as European foreign ministers had reiterated on Monday, he said.

The mission suspended its work after the Islamist Hamas movement seized sole control of Gaza in 2007.

Rafah crossing - Reuters - Dec. 3, 2007

Cusin said EUBAM was still following the situation at Rafah closely. The observers were aware of Egypt's decision to reopen the Rafah crossing, through the media, and waiting to see its impact.

"It is well know that the freedom of movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza is one of the top priorities of the EU," he told the German Press Agency dpa.

He noted that Rafah had already been open five days a week for about eight hours a day, but had been functioning on a "very, very limited basis." Only travelers including students, foreign passport holders and patients with special authorization from the Egyptian authorities were allowed to cross.

Opening the Egypt-Gaza border will ease the isolation of the more than 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza. But Israel fears it could also facilitate the smuggling of weapons into the strip ruled by Hamas.

The Islamist group released a statement welcoming Egypt's decision, saying "These measures are the right decision in the right direction, and will facilitate the life of the population and ease their suffering."

Israel has expressed concern over Rafah's opening, with Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilani calling it "very problematic."

Speaking to Israel Radio, the minister said that Egypt's decision "symbolizes the first stage of a very problematic system for Israel."