With Gaza-Egypt border closed for a month, EU scales back monitoring mission there

143.jpgThe EU is scaling back its monitoring mission at the Gaza-Egypt border, a spokeswoman said Saturday, suggesting that Gaza’s only gateway to the world won’t open again anytime soon.The Rafah border terminal closed June 9, the start of the final round of bloody factional fighting that led to Hamas’ takeover of the coastal strip.

Since then, about 6,000 Gazans have been stranded on the Egyptian side of the border. Three members of the West Bank-based government of moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad headed to Cairo on Saturday to try to find a solution.

Israel has proposed rerouting the stranded travelers through Kerem Shalom, an Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, but Hamas has rejected the idea, apparently for fear of setting a precedent.

The Rafah terminal is operated by Egypt and the Palestinian security forces, without direct Israeli involvement.

“We are against opening the Zionist-controlled crossing of Kerem Shalom,” said a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum.

“This is a conspiracy against our people by Israel and the pro-American leadership in Ramallah,” Barhoum said in a reference to Fayyad’s government.

In Gaza City, about 1,500 Hamas supporters, most of them flag-waving school children, marched to protest the continued closure of the border.

The European monitors had been deployed under a November 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, following Israel’s pullout from Gaza. Under the deal, the border was controlled by Palestinian and Egyptian security forces, with European monitors deployed on the Palestinian side to prevent smuggling of weapons and militants.

Israel monitors Rafah border traffic via closed-circuit TV and retains veto power over border operations. The European monitors, who are based in Israel, can only report to their jobs once Israel gives a security clearance.

In the past year, since the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza, Rafah has been closed repeatedly. In recent months, there had been a slight improvement, but the terminal has been closed continuously since June 9, the start of the final battle between Hamas and the forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for control of Gaza.

Hamas defeated Abbas’ forces, who had carried out key missions, including border controls. Instead of Abbas’ Presidential Guards, Hamas gunmen now control the Rafah terminal.

In the current situation, it’s pointless to keep all 87 members of the EU mission in the area, said mission spokeswoman Maria Telleria. She would not say how many members of the mission are leaving in coming weeks, but added that enough will stay behind to operate the border should it open at short notice. She said between 15 and 18 monitors are needed for a shift at the Rafah terminal.

“I can’t foresee in the near future that the border will be opened on permanent basis,” she said.

The spokeswoman said the mission’s managers and equipment will stay.

In other developments, about 30 armed men from a Hamas-led security force entered Gaza City’s Al-Azhar University and seized 80 bags with chemicals from the agriculture college, the dean said.

The dean, Jawad Wadi, said he called the office of the Hamas ruler of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, to file a complaint. Haniyeh was deposed as prime minister by Abbas after the Hamas takeover. Al-Azhar has ties to Abbas’ Fatah movement.

“This is a very dangerous,” Wadi said. “The university is a place for education and this is not the way to deal with the university.”

Islam Shahwan, spokesman for Hamas’ Executive Force militia, denied the dean’s account. He said the men went “to investigate some abuse in the lab. We went there and we didn’t confiscate anything.”

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