Israel, PA reach deal on Gaza crossings

abbas 88 AP (photo credit: AP)
abbas 88 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan and Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn Wednesday to work out details for implementation of the agreement on the Rafah crossing hammered out by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late Monday night. Rice, standing next to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Wolfensohn, presented a six-point agreement to "promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground" at a hastily called press conference Tuesday, without Israeli or Palestinian reporters, at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. "For the first time since 1967, Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory," Rice said. "This will be through an international crossing at Rafah, whose target opening date is November 25." The agreement not only deals with the Rafah crossing, but also with enhancing the capacity at the crossings from the Gaza Strip into Israel and creating a convoy link from Gaza to the West Bank. The agreement, considered a significant diplomatic coup for a Bush administration looking for achievements in the region, is expected to be the blueprint for similar security arrangements that would likely be put into place once a Gaza seaport and airport are built. It gives the PA an Israeli green light to begin construction of a seaport, something deemed essential to attracting investors, and also calls for discussions on "security arrangements, construction and operation" of an airport. In addition, Israel pledged to facilitate movement within the West Bank, consistent with its security needs, and to draw up with the US a list of roadblocks and try to "reduce them to the maximum extent possible" by December 31. "This agreement is a good step forward," said Rice, who was determined to have a final text before leaving the country. "With the international community, Israel and the Palestinian Authority must keep working hard to make these measures work in practice. As they are implemented, trust can grow." She said the agreement was intended to "give the Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives." Mofaz, after meeting with Rice Tuesday morning, said the agreement struck "the right balance between Israel's security needs and the Palestinian economic needs. With that, we will not let the Palestinian economic needs harm the state's security." PA negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Jerusalem Post the agreement "could pave the way for other important things." "We have a good agreement," he said. "This is the first time in our history that we are going to run an international passage." Rice, who arrived on Sunday and extended her stay overnight to work on this agreement, left for South Korea immediately after announcing the deal. According to the agreement, PA officials would man the Gaza side of the terminal, with Egyptians on the other side and the EU as a third-party presence. The issue that proved most contentious regarding the terminal - how Israel would receive surveillance film - was solved by creating a liaison office that will be established at Kerem Shalom, led by the EU, that would receive a real-time video feed of the activities at the terminal. A Foreign Ministry official said that Israeli, PA and EU officials would man the liaison office at all times to view the feed. Regarding the role of the EU monitors, the agreement says they "will have the authority to ensure that the PA complies with all applicable rules and regulations concerning the Rafah crossing point and the terms of this agreement. In case of non-compliance, the third party has the authority to order the reexamination and reassessment of any passenger, luggage, vehicle or goods. While the request is being processed, the person, luggage, vehicle or cargo in question will not be allowed to leave the premises of the Rafah crossing point." EU officials have made it clear, however, that the EU personnel would not be serving as policemen, border guards or customs officers, but only as "active monitors." For the next 12 months, Palestinians with valid ID cards traveling to and from Gaza and Egypt will use the terminal, as will "humanitarian cases" and VIPs, such as diplomats, foreign investors or foreign representatives of recognized international organizations. Rafah would also be used for the export of goods to Egypt. The import of goods into Gaza will go through Kerem Shalom, where PA customs officials will be on hand to clear incoming cargo. Solana said the EU team would number 50 to 70, made up of policemen and "experts in border crossing." He said members of the team would come from a number of different countries and would be led by "a general from the Italian gendarmerie Carabinieri." Rice made it clear to all parties before she arrived that she saw the opening of the Rafah crossing, and the enhancement of the capacity at the Karni cargo crossing from Gaza into Israel, as key to economic development in Gaza. Israel agreed to allow at least 150 export trucks a day from Gaza into Israel by the end of the year, and at least 400 trucks a day by the end of 2006. This is up considerably from the 35 that have gone through Karni daily since disengagement. The agreement also stipulated that bus convoys from Gaza to the West Bank would be established by December 15, and truck convoys set up a month later. One diplomatic official also ascribed a great deal of importance to agreement on these convoys. "This should go a long way toward dispelling Palestinian fears that the disengagement from Gaza was just a trick, and that they would be penned up there, cut off from the West Bank," he said. Meanwhile, Likud MK Binyamin Netanyahu expressed concern about the agreement in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, saying it constituted a danger to Israel. "The result is easy to see," he said. "There will be plenty of weapons finding their way to Gaza. Kassam rockets and mortars will be transported through Judea and Samaria to be launched at Israel." Committee chairman Yuval Steinitz said that "Israel was pressured into opening up the crossings before we were ready; we gave in to pressure from the Americans." Osama El Baz, political adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said that Egypt has its own incentive to ensure a secure border. "Anything that will hurt... the other side, can hurt us," he told The Jerusalem Post. "If there is smuggling, it works both ways. Some people are against peace, are against this and that. If we allow somebody to go that way, then they can come this way and hurt our own security, not that Egypt is afraid or insecure, but we would like to be very sure when it comes to safety and security. That is very important. That is why we understand Israel's concept of security." Hamas blasted the agreement, accusing the PA of making "Gaza a big prison" by agreeing to its terms. It slammed the PA for agreeing "to have a third party as an overseer" on Palestinian land. Hilary Leila Krieger and Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.