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Huge Gaza Deal Brokered Today


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Rice Cements Deal on Gaza Borders

By Robin Wright and Scott Wilson

Washington Post Staff Writers

Tuesday, November 15, 2005; 11:53 AM

JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 -- After marathon all-night negotiations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a comprehensive agreement between the Israeli and the Palestinian governments Tuesday designed to ease the Gaza Strip's isolation by allowing more reliable access for its goods and people to Israel and the outside world.

The deal sets out the terms of operation for Gaza border crossings used to move cargo and people, resolving a deadlock that has frustrated a team of international negotiators for weeks. It also establishes a system of bus convoys to shuttle Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, the two territorial components of what is envisioned as a future Palestinian state.

The agreement allows the Palestinians to begin work on Gaza's seaport, and assures donors that Israel will not interfere with its operation. It leaves unclear when the port would open and under what guidelines, but work to get it up and running will take at least three years, Palestinian officials said. The deal says discussions on renovating and reopening Gaza's international airport will continue.

"The important thing here is that people have understood that there is an important balance between security on the one hand, and, on the other hand, allowing the Palestinian people freedom of movement," Rice said at a news conference with international envoy James Wolfensohn and European Union foreign minister Javier Solana. "The other important point is that everybody recognizes that if the Palestinians can move more freely and export their agriculture, that Gaza will be a much better place, where the institutions of democracy can begin to take hold."

The agreement is the most significant sign of progress here since Israel concluded its withdrawal from Gaza two months ago, and it comes as the Bush administration is seeking ways to restart an Israeli-Palestinian peace process dormant since the most recent intifada began in Sept. 2000. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cut contact with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in recent weeks, accusing him of failing to act against armed Palestinian groups at war with Israel.

Although Israel ended its 38-year presence inside Gaza in mid-September, the government has maintained tight control over the crossing points that have been closed frequently in the past two months of sporadic violence. Rice said that, for the first time since the 1967 Middle East War when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians will gain a measure of control over their own borders.

Wolfensohn, the special envoy of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations on matters related to the Gaza withdrawal, threatened to leave his post earlier this week in frustration at the lack of progress he had made on the crossings issue. He will stay in the job and see through the agreement's implementation, a potentially difficult task given Israel's abiding security concerns and rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel that has dropped off in recent weeks.

"The whole agreement is to balance between security and movement," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry. "Hopefully, there will be conditions so we will not have to close it in the future. We would only do so if there is a specific security need."

Poor, crowded and remote, Gaza has shown signs of deteriorating further since Israel razed 21 settlements and evacuated 8,500 settlers after a nearly four-decade presence.

The strip has emerged as a proving ground for a future Palestinian state, and a key venue for the sharpening political contest between the ruling secular Fatah party and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, which unlike its rival refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Palestinian officials and pollsters say an improved economy could help Fatah against Hamas in the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, the first national balloting in which Hamas intends to participate.

Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian planning minister who headed the negotiations, said before the deal was reached that "the situation in Gaza is becoming a little bit dangerous because of the lack of economic progress."

"This is playing into the only alternative to the Palestinian Authority," said Khatib, referring to Hamas.

The target date for the opening of the Rafah crossing on Gaza's border with Egypt, which has been sealed since several days of chaotic crossings there following Israel's departure, is Nov. 25. Rafah is Gaza's only link to the outside world other than Israel.

The Rafah agreement calls for European Union officials to monitor the crossing. Israel will be allowed to track who is passing through the crossing by camera, but it gave up its demand to have the right to reject anyone it does not want entering or exiting.

"This is the first time in history we will run an international passage by ourselves and it's the first time Israel does not have a veto over our ability to do so," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "The most important thing now is to move forward to the airport, the harbor and the convoys to the West Bank. We cannot say Rafah and that's all."

The agreement on the Karni crossing is potentially far more economically significant. Hundreds of Palestinians lost jobs on Israeli farms in Gaza, which brought in $100 million a year in revenue. Those former Israeli greenhouses have since been turned over to the Palestinian Authority, but their value relies entirely on the government's ability to export the tomatoes, strawberries, sweet peppers and other produce grown in them.

Palestinian officials and the farmers now working 4,250 acres of greenhouses -- less than a quarter of which were left behind by Gaza settlers -- feared that closures at Karni would hamper their ability to export the perishable crops in time to reach outside markets. In what could provide a boost for Gaza's economy, the Israeli government agreed to permit the export of all agricultural produce from the current harvest.

Palestinian officials, who have worked to repair and refurbish greenhouses damaged and looted following the Israeli withdrawal, are expecting a 25-ton strawberry harvest to begin making its way through Karni in 10 days. Bassil Jabir, director of the Palestine Economic Development Corp. now managing the 800 acres of greenhouses left by the settlers, said 75 percent of Gaza's harvest is sold in Israel and European markets.

"If we are allowed to export that amount, you will change the face of the Gaza economy," Jabir said. "The way to save Gaza is not bombing money into job-creating projects. That is good and needed. But the key is to reestablish an economic cycle in Gaza."

Under the agreement, Israel will allow 150 truckloads to pass through Karni each month by the year's end. The number of monthly truckloads would increase to 400 by the end of 2006. The deal also tacitly envisions the opening of a second cargo crossing if Karni is closed for some reason. The most likely place would be at Erez in northern Gaza or at the Kissufim or Sufa crossings in the southern strip, both of which have been closed since Israel's withdrawal.

The process will still follow the cumbersome back-to-back method -- produce is unloaded from Palestinian trucks at the crossing and reloaded on Israeli trucks waiting on the other side -- until scanners are in place that would allow for door-to-door deliveries. The Bush administration is contributing $50 million toward purchasing the scanners, which will not be in place for at least a year.

According to Palestinian figures, Israel allowed 406 truckloads through Karni bound for Israeli markets in September, the month its Gaza withdrawal was completed. That number fell to 182 truckloads in October as Israeli officials shut the border several times following a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Hadera and after rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel.

The agreement does not explicitly state under what conditions Israel would be allowed to close Karni for security reasons. But a diplomat involved in the negotiations said the discussions made clear that "if there is a bombing in Hadera, for example, it is not clear why Karni would need to be closed."

"It's in Israel's interest to have some logical relationship between an event and the response," the diplomat said.

In addition, bus convoys to move people between the West Bank and Gaza is scheduled to begin by Dec. 15 and truck traffic by Jan. 15. Israel agreed in principle to beginning such a system months ago, but it has yet to be implemented.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials were upbeat after a long night of intense negotiations.

"It's a document designed to organize the whole issue of the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza. It's more ambitious than a lot of us thought at the beginning. Everyone wants to have a deal in the run up to both elections," said a senior Israeli foreign ministry official.

The official said a broader agreement was made possible when talks changed from a deal on Rafah to a comprehensive agreement on all crossings. It also required compromises on both sides.

"No one is happy with the deal, but we have to do it," said Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Authority's civil-affairs minister.

Wright reported from Jerusalem. Wilson reported from Gaza and Jerusalem.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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I don't trust Hamas at all.

Applaud Israel for keep coming to the table. But until the Palestinians can get their act together and keep it together. We need to see this last longer than a few weeks or months.

This pretty much ensures Abbas' re-election. That along with the Gaza deal shows a desire Palestinean state from all parties. I would count that as the Palestineans "keeping to together" sufficiently.

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I don't trust Hamas at all.

Applaud Israel for keep coming to the table. But until the Palestinians can get their act together and keep it together. We need to see this last longer than a few weeks or months.

No one trusts Hamas. The problem is, if you don't work with the Palestinian authority and get the ball moving, they lose credibility with their people and Hamas gains strength.

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