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Israel took over key Gaza crossing. What next?

Most aid bound for Gaza's north must come from the south on trips complicated by destruction and fighting
— Jerusalem (AFP)

The Israeli flag has flown over the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing for two weeks, but uncertainty over the future of the key aid terminal has quickly become a thorn on Israel's side.

Egypt has refused to reopen its side of the crossing as long as Israeli troops control the Palestinian side, keeping shut one of the only points through which badly needed aid was reaching Gaza.

The impasse has worsened an already dire humanitarian catastrophe for the Palestinian territory's 2.4 million people, with repeated warnings of a looming famine more than seven months into the Israel-Hamas war.

The Rafah crossing, on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, stood as a symbol of Hamas's control over the territory where the Iran-backed militant group seized power in 2007.

But early on May 7 the Israeli army completed a swift takeover of the crossing, which it said was being "used for terrorist purposes".

It has since been closed, severely limiting the volume of aid that has made it into Gaza.

Before Israeli tanks rolled in, Hamas -- designated a "terrorist" group by Israel, the United States and the European Union -- had collected taxes on goods passing through the entry gate.

Israel and others also suspect the Rafah crossing had been used to bring weapons into the Gaza Strip, particularly since Israel imposed a blockade on the territory when Hamas took power there.

- Rejected bids -

Israel takes control of Rafah border crossing

Since the start of the war, sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, most aid deliveries into Gaza have passed through Rafah, long a strategic crossing point for the Palestinian territory and the only one not controlled by Israel.

In the weeks before the Israeli army took over, about 100 aid trucks had entered daily via Rafah, according to UN figures, as well as most of the crucial fuel supply.

As early as a day after the Israeli seizure, media reports said the government was exploring its options.

The left-wing daily Haaretz said Israel had begun negotiations with Egypt and the United States to hand over management of the crossing to a private US company.

Some analysts said they were sceptical about the projects, citing likely opposition by armed Palestinian groups that would render operations risky or impossible.

Hamas militants have already claimed several rocket attacks targeting Israeli troops deployed at the terminal.

Egypt has refused to coordinate with Israel on the Rafah crossing, and on Wednesday media reports said Cairo had rejected an Israeli proposal to reopen the crossing.

Israeli and Palestinian media have also reported another Israeli proposal, this time to the Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank and controlled by Hamas rival Fatah, the party of president Mahmud Abbas.

The proposal, according to the reports, would formally give the PA control of the crossing but operations would be handled by a group deemed neutral such as the Red Crescent Society.

The PA refused, insisting it would only assume control of the crossing if it is given full authority in running it.

- UN to get the keys? -

Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and until the Hamas takeover in 2007, the Rafah crossing was under the PA's control.

An agreement largely steered by Washington had put PA agents in charge but guaranteed Israel the right of supervision.

European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) gendarmes were also present at the crossing under the 2005 agreement.

EUBAM has been approached recently, a European official in Jerusalem told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But the source said the Europeans had made it clear they would refuse to take part in operating the crossing unless the PA was involved.

A Tel Aviv-based EU diplomat, also requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak publicly on the issue, told AFP the embassy had been asked about the Rafah crossing.

"I don't think it's likely that we'll be directly involved," the diplomat said, stressing the complexity of setting up a European mission in the terminal and the "humanitarian emergency" that his government considers Israel's responsibility.

With regional and Western governments unwilling to take charge for now, the United Nations remains a potential partner.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has never managed the Rafah crossing but has played a central role in managing the aid that passes through it.

But Israel's long-strained ties with UNRWA and other UN bodies have further soured during the war, and the government is unlikely to want to entrust the agency with the keys to crossing.

UNRWA has been the target of a barrage of Israeli criticism since the war began, with top Israeli leaders and ministers accusing it of collusion with Hamas though offering little evidence.

The UN agency has strongly denied the Israeli claims.