Jun 7, 2024 - World

Scoop: Israel says it won't let Palestinian Authority have Rafah crossing role

Palestinian truck drivers and United Nations vehicles wait near the Rafah border gate in Gaza to cross to Egypt on May, 14 2024

Palestinian truck drivers and United Nations vehicles wait near the Rafah border gate in Gaza to cross to Egypt on May 14, 2024 after the Israeli army took control of the crossing. Photo: Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images

U.S., Egyptian and Israeli officials failed to make progress in a meeting last Sunday about reopening the Rafah crossing after the Israeli side refused to allow any role for the Palestinian Authority in operating the strategic site, according to four U.S. and Israeli officials.

Why it matters: Reopening the crossing on the border of Egypt and Gaza, preventing Hamas from smuggling weapons into the Strip from Egypt and maintaining a tenuous peace between Israel and Egypt are top priorities for the Biden administration.

  • U.S. officials say the reopening of the Rafah crossing could be a first step in a wider post-war strategy for the stabilization and reconstruction of Gaza.

Driving the news: The meeting in Cairo was a result of a phone call two weeks ago between President Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

  • During the call, Sisi agreed to Biden's request to resume the flow of aid trucks into Gaza through Israel, after deliveries were halted two weeks earlier in protest of Israel's takeover of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing.
  • Biden promised the Egyptian president that if the flow of aid was resumed, the U.S. would work to reopen the Rafah crossing as soon as possible, a U.S. official said.

The big picture: The Biden administration has repeatedly said it sees Gaza as part of a future Palestinian state and wants the Palestinian Authority to have a role in governing it after the war.

  • But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed back on the Palestinian Authority's involvement in Gaza in almost every meeting with U.S. officials in recent months.
  • Early in the war, he said he was against any role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, a position that has become a political talking point that he will have a hard time walking back.

During a meeting of Israel's security cabinet ahead of the talks in Egypt, Netanyahu said he doesn't agree to any role for the Palestinian Authority at the Rafah crossing, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.

  • One of the sources said Netanyahu's remark contradicted a policy approved in the war cabinet a few days earlier that said Israel would agree to the Rafah crossing being operated by any government entity other than Hamas.

Behind the scenes: The U.S. delegation for the meeting in Cairo was headed by Terry Wolff, the senior director for the Middle East at the White House National Security Council.

  • The Israeli government coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza, Gen. Ghassan Alian, and officials from the Shin Bet security agency led the Israeli delegation.
  • Egypt was represented by officials from the country's intelligence service and military.

Friction point: During the meeting, the U.S. and Egypt raised the possibility of reopening the crossing with Palestinians from Gaza who are not affiliated with Hamas and would be representatives of the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah has prepared a list of about 300 hundred Palestinians from Gaza who were vetted and ready to work at the crossing, U.S. officials said.
  • Israel said at the meeting that it is ready to vet the Palestinians who are on the list and to allow those who aren't affiliated with Hamas to operate the crossing together with the EU force of monitors that was stationed at the crossing before Hamas began governing Gaza in 2007, according to two Israeli officials.
  • Israel said it doesn't have a problem with Palestinians who are affiliated with Fatah — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' party and Hamas' political rival — operating the crossing, but they wouldn't agree to them doing it as official representatives of the Palestinian Authority, the officials said.

Israel proposed an interim solution could be for the Palestinians on the list to operate the crossing as "a local civilian committee" instead, one Israeli official said.

  • Egypt and the Palestinian Authority reject the idea.
  • The Egyptians proposed to hold a follow-up meeting with the director of intelligence for the Palestinian Authority, Maj. Gen. Majed al-Faraj, to discuss the issue.
  • But the Israelis refused and said the government's directive is not to hold any discussions about Gaza with the Palestinian Authority. They added they would need approval from Israel's political leaders to hold such a meeting.

Between the lines: A senior Israeli official said Israel and the U.S. also presented information about the number of tunnels they say are between Egypt and Gaza and asked the Egyptians to destroy them in order to prevent weapons being smuggled to Hamas.

  • The Egyptians "played down" the issue, the official said.
  • Egyptian officials earlier said there were no such tunnels and that Israel was using the claims to justify its attack on Rafah.

What they're saying: "The discussions about the Rafah crossing were very tough and ended with no agreement," an Israeli official said.

  • One U.S. official said "there was a lot of frustration and disappointment on both sides" during the Cairo meeting.
  • But another U.S. official said there was some progress in the meeting in Cairo, including an agreement to increase the amount of humanitarian aid delivered from Egypt to Gaza through Israel.

Both U.S. officials said there was no expectation to reach a solution after one meeting and the conversations with Egypt and Israel about the crossing are still ongoing. They said an agreement on the reopening of the crossing could still happen in the near future.

  • Egyptian security sources told Reuters the meeting was positive despite there being no agreement.
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