Rice Negotiates Deal to Open Gaza Crossings
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 -- The final push began Monday night. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched a mediation session in her ninth-floor suite at 11 p.m., meeting alternately with Israel and Palestinian delegations and refusing to allow either side to go to bed until they reached the elusive deal.
The issue on the table was access to the Gaza Strip. Israel ended its 38-year presence in Gaza in mid-September, turning it over to the Palestinians, but had maintained tight control over the crossing points. During two months of sporadic violence, Palestinians and Israelis were unable to reach a border agreement, and the strip remained mostly sealed off.
"Piece by piece," according to a senior State Department official in the talks, Rice negotiated the long list of differences dividing the two sides. One was the Israelis' proposed blacklist of Palestinians who had ever been detained by Israel. Another was the Palestinians' concern that if the strip were opened, even a minor incident might bring renewed closure. Between sessions, Rice walked the corridor to discuss details with staff members and look over their shoulders as they typed up text after modified text, the official said.
By midmorning Tuesday, Rice was able to announce a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to ease Gaza's isolation and provide reliable access for its goods and people to Israel and the outside world. She called the deal "a major step forward" that would allow the Palestinians to "live ordinary lives" and would establish a new "pattern of cooperation" between the two sides. "For the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory," she said, referring to the Middle East war, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank.
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 aid donors that Israel will not interfere with its operation. It leaves unclear when the port will 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 James D. Wolfensohn, a special envoy to the Middle East, and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief. "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 whole agreement is to balance between security and movement," said Mark Regev, a 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."
The agreement is the most significant sign of progress here since Israel concluded its withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza two months ago, and it comes as the Bush administration is seeking ways to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cut contact with the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, accusing him of failing to act against armed Palestinian groups.
Poor, crowded and remote, Gaza 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 movement 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 parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 25.
Ghassan Khatib, the authority's planning minister, who headed the negotiations for the Palestinians, 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.