Israel finally agrees to give Palestinians control of border
The Independent UK
By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
Palestinians stand to gain control of one of their borders for the first time in a wide-ranging US- brokered deal aimed at giving Gaza's population and its devastated economy more access to the outside world.
The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hammered out a deal between Israel and the Palestinian leadership which should open up the southern Rafah border crossing, significantly speed up cargo traffic through the Karni terminal into Israel, and allow secure passage between Gaza and the West Bank.
As Ms Rice left the Middle East after extending her stay to press for a deal in all-night negotiations, Western diplomats said she had put Israel under pressure to agree a formula which - among other things - should bolster the political position of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President.
James Wolfensohn, the former chairman of the World Bank and the international envoy on post-disengagement Gaza, had expressed deep frustration in private that Israel's detailed preoccupation with security, while valid, threatened to prevent measures which could contribute to longer term stability and therefore security.
Under the deal, based on a draft submitted by Mr Wolfensohn, the Rafah crossing is "targeted" to open on 26 November as is the Karni crossing, the lifeline for exports and imports to and from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, to allow the passage of 100 lorries a day instead of the present average of 35. As new fast, secure scanning comes into operation the total is intended to reach 400 a day.
In the meantime, Israel pledges "on an urgent basis" to hasten exports of agricultural harvest - including vegetables from 400 acres of greenhouses left behind by the settlers in August. The agreement was reached only a week or so before the harvest reaches its peak.
The agreement also provides for bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank to start on 15 December and truck convoys on 15 January. The Palestinians had argued that passage between the two sections was essential if a Palestinian state was ever to be realised.
At the heart of the new package is a compromise under which Gaza residents with Palestinian ID will be able to travel between the strip and Egypt, and goods pass into Egypt, through the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians will operate the crossing in co-operation with the EU which will have a major security role.
Israel had originally insisted on a central role in controlling security at Rafah through live closed-circuit television beamed to an Israeli-run control centre.
The live pictures will instead be provided by a joint liaison office led by EU representatives and consisting of Palestinian and Israeli security officials, but assuming the agreement works, will leave the final decision to the Palestinians.
The agreement provides for the Palestinian Authority to consult Israel and the EU over goods or passengers any party judges as suspect but says this will take place "prior to a PA decision whether to prohibit travel or not".
The Palestinian leadership welcomed the agreement yesterday as "positive". One Western diplomat said the proof of the agreement would be in its implementation but that it represented an unexpectedly encouraging step.
While the agreement envisages work starting on a new seaport and "continuing discussions" on a new airport, Israeli officials said they had still not changed their view that these developments, particularly an airport, should not take effect in the imminent future.
Ms Rice said: "Everybody recognises that if the Palestinian people can move more freely, if they can export agricultural products, if they can work, Gaza is going to be a much better place. This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives."
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