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Rice Negotiates Deal to Open Gaza Crossings
The target date for opening 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 land link to a country 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 with Israel. "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 between Gaza and Israel is potentially far more economically significant. When Israel evacuated Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians lost jobs on farms in Israeli settlements. The settlement greenhouses have since been turned over to the Palestinian Authority, but their value relies entirely on the Palestinians' ability to export the tomatoes, strawberries, sweet peppers and other produce grown in them.
Palestinian officials and farmers feared that closures at Karni would hamper their ability to export 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 products from the current harvest. Palestinian officials are expecting a 25-ton strawberry harvest to begin making its way through Karni in 10 days.
"If we are allowed to export that amount, you will change the face of the Gaza economy," said Bassil Jabir, director of the Palestinian Economic Development Corp. "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."
The process will still require that produce be unloaded from Palestinian trucks at the crossing and placed on Israeli trucks waiting on the other side, at least in the short term. The Bush administration is contributing $50 million for scanners and other improvements at the crossings that would eliminate the need for the so-called back-to-back transfer. But most of the improvements -- including scanners that could examine entire trucks -- will probably not be in place for a year.
To underscore the immediacy of the challenge, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad gave Rice a bag of Gaza bell peppers during the negotiations as a gift to mark her 51st birthday Monday. Gaza's peppers are just two weeks from ripening, and if the deal succeeds, they'll be ready for export, Fayad told her, according to a senior State Department official present at the negotiations.
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 in October, as Israeli officials shut the border several times following a suicide bombing in the Israeli city of Hadera and rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Under the agreement, Israel will allow 150 truckloads bound for all markets to pass through Karni each day by the year's end, when a new freight scanner is scheduled to be up and running there. The number of daily truckloads would increase to 400 by the end of 2006.
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 are scheduled to begin by Dec. 15, followed by truck traffic by Jan. 15. Israel agreed in principle to beginning such a system months ago, but it has yet to be implemented.
After a long night of intense negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian officials were upbeat.
"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," a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said.
The official said the broad agreement was made possible when talks changed from a deal on Rafah to a comprehensive accord on all crossings.
Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Authority's civil affairs minister, said: "No one is happy with the deal, but we have to do it."