Talks on reopening Rafah Crossing stuck over Netanyahu refusal to allow PA involvement

Israel’s security establishment backs including PA in running border terminal, but is handcuffed by political echelon which believes it has other options, officials tell ToI

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A Palestinian stranded in Egypt waits to cross Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah, Egypt, after a temporary truce came into effect, November 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A Palestinian stranded in Egypt waits to cross Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah, Egypt, after a temporary truce came into effect, November 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Talks between Israel, Egypt and the United States aimed at reopening the Rafah Border Crossing  between Gaza and Egypt remain at an impasse over Israel’s refusal to accept any involvement from the Palestinian Authority in the management of the border terminal, according to a US and an Israeli official.

Israel, Egypt and the US held a high-level meeting on Sunday to discuss the issue, which the State Department claimed had been constructive, but the two officials speaking to The Times of Israel on Friday said Israel and Egypt remain at odds.

Israel took over the Gaza side of the Rafah Crossing as part of a broader operation against Hamas in Gaza’s southernmost city. Egypt has since refused to reopen its side of the gate, as long as Israeli troops are operating the other side.

Israel showed willingness to have local Palestinians manage the crossing, but the only ones qualified to do so are affiliated with the PA. Israel proposed having the guards identify themselves as part of a local civilian committee, rather than officers of the PA, the officials added, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to allow any PA involvement in Gaza, likening PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party to Hamas. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners are even more opposed to the move and have advocated for collapsing the PA that rules over parts of the West Bank.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues that belong to Ramallah, which the US has repeatedly called on Israel to release.

Sunday’s trilateral meeting followed a call that US President Joe Biden held with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in which the latter agreed to allow the humanitarian aid piling up on the Egyptian side of the border to be transferred to Gaza through Israel.

IDF troops and tanks on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Rafah’s continued closure significantly hampers efforts to surge aid into Gaza. The crossing previously served as one of the main gates for aid transfers.

For the US, the PA operating the Rafah Crossing would amount to a stepping stone for its broader post-war goal of a unified Palestinian governing body over the West Bank and Gaza. The US has also insisted that Ramallah must undergo significant reforms before being tasked with managing the border.

PA intel chief Majed Faraj compiled a list of some 300 employees who had been vetted to ensure that they weren’t linked to Hamas and capable of operating the crossing, a US official said.

The Palestinian forces would work together with the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), which had operated the Rafah Crossing until Hamas took over in 2007. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last month that Brussels is prepared to revive the force, pending approval from Israel, the PA and Egypt.

However the plan is being held up due to Netanyahu’s opposition to any formal PA involvement.

Israel’s security establishment supports including the PA in the management of Rafah but has been handcuffed by directives from the political echelon, which is under the impression that Israel has other options, the US and Israeli officials said.

Talks between the sides will continue virtually in the coming days, the officials added.

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