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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rice Brokers Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Gaza Passage - New York Times

Rice Brokers Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Gaza Passage - New York TimesNovember 14, 2005
Rice Brokers Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on Gaza Passage

JERUSALEM, Tuesday, Nov. 15 - Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached a broad agreement to move people and goods in and out of Gaza to enhance the territory's viability and strengthen the moderate leadership of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Tuesday after a full day and night of marathon negotiations.

The agreement represented a major breakthrough in an impasse over several issues that had caused mounting bitterness between Israel and the Palestinians following the withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers last August. It was aimed at opening up several crossings from Gaza to neighboring Israel and Egypt while giving Israeli security personnel a role behind the scenes in checking trucks, buses and individuals to guard against terrorist attacks.

In an extraordinary personal effort in the Middle East that the Bush administration has not attempted in five years, Ms. Rice and her aides led the arduous all-night negotiations, closeted at her ninth floor suite in the David Citadel Hotel here, near the old walled city, with top aides to Prime Minister Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. She was also joined by James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president and special Middle East peace envoy.

Earlier, Ms. Rice decided abruptly after a full day of talks to cancel her plans to travel to South Korea on Monday night in order to bring the talks to a successful conclusion amid warnings by Palestinians that without the issues being solved, Gaza would remain a prison for Palestinians, unable to export goods or let people get to their jobs in Israel and the West Bank.

The six-part agreement calls for Palestinian operation of the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt, with the European Union playing a role and helping Israel play a backup role behind the scene. The accord also calls for cargo to be able to leave Gaza shortly and for buses to be able to transport Palestinians to Israel and the West Bank, and for construction of a seaport to begin shortly.

There was no agreement on opening the airport in Gaza, as the Palestinians wanted. In addition, Israel pledged to start work with the United States on identifying checkpoints and crossings to be lifted in the West Bank that have drawn criticism from the Palestinians, but no firm commitment to actually lift them was set.

"The important thing here is that people have understood that there is an important balance between security on one hand and allowing the Palestinian people freedom of movement," said Secretary Rice, adding that if the Palestinians can export, work and move about freely they can improve their lives and build on democracy.

Ms. Rice said Mr. Wolfensohn would work to make sure that both sides stick to their deadlines.

A five-page document was released at the announcement made by Ms. Rice, Mr. Wolfensohn and Javier Solana, the external affairs envoy for the European Union, which will supply personnel to help operate Rafah. The cargo and bus crossings will be operated solely by the Palestinians and Israel.

Ms. Rice said that she worked through the night on the negotiations, getting only two hours of sleep.

"This is the first time that a border is opened and not controlled by the Israelis," said Mr. Solana. "As you can imagine this is a very important step."

The agreement said that the Rafah crossing should be open by Nov. 25, in ten days, and that "on an urgent basis" Israel would permit the export of agriculture products in the current harvest season. American officials say that the export of these products was considered vital to the territory's economic viability.

Mr. Wolfensohn has more recently been openly critical of the refusal of both sides to make concessions to ease the crossings, and to ensure the Gaza area's economic future by allowing it to export produce and other goods and send some of its people to jobs in Israel and the West Bank.

On Monday, Mr. Wolfensohn's frustrations burst forth in a talk at a conference in Jerusalem, saying he would leave his post if the two sides "want to blow each other up."

The Associated Press quoted Mr. Wolfensohn saying that he "found it difficult to understand why on six issues in 20 weeks of negotiations it has been impossible to bring about more progress."

"I am simply observing that it's tough and maybe I'm not up to it," he said. "Maybe someone else is."

People close to the talks said that Ms. Rice had in effect replaced Mr. Wolfensohn as the negotiator and had drafted her own compromise document.

American, Israeli and Palestinian officials said that the central issue that Ms. Rice hoped to resolve this evening was who should monitor the passage of potential extremists in and out of Gaza.

Also being discussed were demands by the Palestinians that bus transportation be available for them to move freely from Gaza to the West Bank and that Palestinians be allowed to export produce and other goods from Gaza into Israel and the West Bank 24 hours a day.

Earlier on Monday, Ms. Rice attended a memorial service for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and before that held a news conference in Ramallah, in the West Bank, with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. There she said that "with enough will and creativity" an agreement on the issue of immigration into Gaza through the Rafah border with Egypt was "within sight."

"I do think they're making a lot of progress," Ms. Rice added. A few hours later, Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said that Ms. Rice was determined to reach an agreement and would return to Israel after visiting Jordan instead of leaving tonight for her planned next stop, an economic conference in South Korea.

The struggle to get an agreement on the crossing issues meant that the parties were focusing on highly technical and perhaps obscure matters but ones crucial to paving the way for progress between Israel and the Palestinians in the future.

The crossing dispute, in particular, is a classic case in Middle East diplomacy of a small matter with large overtones. For Israel, the concern is security and for Palestinians, it is their control over Gaza now that the pullout of Israeli forces and 9,000 settlers is complete.

Part of Mr. Wolfensohn's frustrations, officials said, was that parties were failing to heed his warnings for a comprehensive agreement in time for crops to be delivered after being harvested recently. Mr. Wolfensohn has cited delays imposed by Israel, which are keeping Palestinian trucks from leaving Gaza to deliver recently harvested produce to markets in Israel and the West Bank, dealing an economic blow to Palestinian farmers and businesses.

For Palestinians, gaining control of the one border crossing with Egypt known as Rafah is perhaps the most important issue, because it would mean that Palestinians in Gaza could come and go from the territory without passing through Israeli security. Israel took control of the crossing with Egypt after capturing Gaza in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Negotiators are also seeking to reach a deal that would set the rules for other Gaza crossings. The two sides have been discussing the Karni crossing, on the eastern side of Gaza, which is used to import and export goods. Palestinians complain that perishable agriculture products sometimes rot because of delays. In addition, the sides are negotiating the terms of a convoy system that would allow Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank, with Israeli security providing the escort.

After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza at the end at the end of the summer, thousands of people flowed in and out of the Rafah crossing, alarming Israeli security people. Now Israel insists on retaining some control over the border by setting up cameras and computers to track people's identity - though Israeli security officials would not be present at the crossing.

The Israeli fear is that terrorists bearing arms or cash to be paid to suicide bombers could come into Gaza from Egypt and sneak into Israel. They are demanding the right to have cameras and computers at the Rafah crossing feeding information into Israeli information banks to check for potential terrorists.

With some reluctance, Israel has also accepted the presence of monitors from the European Union to help man the Rafah crossing, but they want more.

"We want to augment Palestinian weakness in a way that does not insult Palestinian independence," said an Israeli official, speaking on anonymity because he was not authorized to use his name.

Palestinians, on the other hand, say that such an intrusive Israeli presence is offensive and unacceptable. President Abbas, at the Ramallah press conference with Ms. Rice, declared that Israel "will not be present at the crossing."

A Palestinian official, declining to be identified because the negotiations were still going on, and referring to Israel's desire to be a part of the crossing inspection regime, said, "It's difficult to explain to our people that they have been liberated when they are occupied by proxy."

Palestinians also are incensed that Israel has presented what they call a "blacklist" of people who have had records of being detained by Israeli security forces who would in effect be barred from going in and out of Gaza in the future. They fear the Israelis want to stop even family members of those people.

Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator, said in an interview after the news conference that the Palestinians were willing to accept the presence of Israeli computers but not cameras.

The compromise proposal being discussed by Ms. Rice, according to officials, would be to have the European Union retain effective control over the cameras in order to give the Palestinians the ability to claim that there was no Israeli presence. But as of this afternoon, there was no sign that this proposal would win agreement on both sides.

Among the other issues that remain to be resolved are the demand by Palestinians that Israel ease up checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, pull forces out of main cities there and release Palestinian prisoners.

Ms. Rice arrived in Israel on Sunday evening and spent the day first in meetings with the Israeli prime minister at his office before driving to Ramallah.

She was here in part to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Mr. Rabin and attended the memorial service for him. But by coincidence, this period is also the first anniversary of the death of Yasir Arafat, whose flower-bedecked gravesite she sped by on her way to meet with Mr. Abbas.

American officials are expressing open disappointment, meanwhile, with what they say has been a failure by Mr. Abbas to confront and disarm militant groups, something he has said he will do after the legislative elections in late January of next year. The Americans now say they expect him to take action after the elections.

The Palestinian Authority is facing other serious problems, including its finances. The finance minister, Salaam Fayyad, said that there is a shortfall of $600 million in the Palestinian budget this year, or about a third of its expenditures, and he did not know where they would make it up.

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