By Robin Wright and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
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."