Rice urges Israel to open Gaza crossings

She believes freer passage will foster economic development in areas that will become independent Palestinian state.

rice 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
rice 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to dramatically ease conditions at the border crossings to and from the Gaza Strip and to lift restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank. Late Tuesday, Rice told reporters that the borders "need to get freed up so that the kind of economic program we all want to see in the Palestinian territories" could begin. Rice, during a Tuesday visit to Ottawa, suggested that Israel must loosen controls at the border crossings to allow freer passage for Palestinians into Israel and Egypt and to foster economic development in areas that would one day be an independent Palestinian state. "It is very clear that the crossings issues need to get resolved, not just the Rafah crossings but the issues of freedom of movement within the West Bank and issues about other crossings that need to be freed up," Rice said. She did not specifically call on Israel to change its border policies, but did not dispute the findings of Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn that Israel was stalling on the restoration of movement across the borders. Rice spoke a day after Wolfensohn admonished Israel for moving too slowly on negotiations to open the borders. In a letter to the UN, US, Russia, Britain and the EU written last week and obtained this week by the media, including The Jerusalem Post, Wolfensohn wrote, "The government of Israel, with its important security concerns, is loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions and preferring to take difficult matters back into slow-moving subcommittees." He warned that failure to open the borders could harm investments in the basic infrastructure projects needed for a viable Palestinian economy and industry, agriculture and tourism projects. "Until the movement issues are resolved, however, and the PA is able to provide stable governance and to reassert civil control, we will be hard pressed to convince governments or investors that anything much has changed, and that this is truly a bankable part of the world once again," Wolfensohn wrote. He said that since September 17, the Rafah crossing hasd been opened only intermittently to allow passage for humanitarian cases. It was also opened briefly this week and then closed again. Wolfensohn added that the flow of workers and good from Gaza to Israel "has ground to a halt." In the months before disengagement, he wrote, some 6,500 workers entered Israel from Gaza daily. That number dropped to 100 for the month of September and to zero in early October. "Truckloads of exports coming from Gaza in the same period have declined from about 35 per day to a mere handful," he said. He said the differences could be quickly resolved, and expressed disappointment he didn't reach a solution during a trip to the region earlier this month. "While the Palestinians were eager to come to closure, [Israel] preferred to leave difficult questions to committees that will not meet until after the Jewish holidays," he wrote. A diplomatic source defended Israel's handling of the border crossings. He blamed the Palestinian Authority for their closings, explaining that the traffic flow through them would be normalized if the PA would control terror attacks. Opening the borders, he said, is dependent on the security situation. "We are not going to give free passage to terrorists. With all due concern and consideration to the daily life of the Palestinian people, we are not going to give free passage to terrorists," he said. The diplomatic source said that opening the passages often results in a terrorist attack. Mofaz's sudden invitation to Cairo to discuss the border crossings came following Mubarak's meeting on Monday with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who stopped in Egypt to brief Mubarak on his talks with US President George W. Bush in Washington last week. Israel is seeking foreign inspectors, possibly from the EU, at the Rafah crossing to ensure unwanted terrorists are not allowed into the Gaza Strip. While in Cairo, Mofaz is also expected to bring up the increased arms smuggling along the 240-kilometer border with Sinai, as well as into the Gaza Strip. Defense officials also said Mofaz would discuss the Egyptian role in the overall peace process and other regional issues. AP contributed to this report.