Agreement opens Gaza Strip borders
JERUSALEM – After marathon all-night negotiations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a comprehensive agreement between the Israeli and the Palestinian governments Tuesday designed to ease the Gaza Strip’s isolation by allowing more reliable access for its goods and people to Israel and the outside world.
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 donors that Israel will not interfere with its operation. It leaves unclear when the port would 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 international envoy James Wolfensohn and European Union foreign minister Javier Solana. “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 agreement is the most significant sign of progress here since Israel concluded its withdrawal from Gaza two months ago, and it comes as the Bush administration is seeking ways to restart an Israeli-Palestinian peace process dormant since the most recent intifada began in Sept. 2000. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has cut contact with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in recent weeks, accusing him of failing to act against armed Palestinian groups at war with Israel.
Although Israel ended its 38-year presence inside Gaza in mid-September, the government has maintained tight control over the crossing points that have been closed frequently in the past two months of sporadic violence. Rice said that, for the first time since the 1967 Middle East War when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians will gain a measure of control over their own borders.
“The whole agreement is to balance between security and movement,” said Mark Regev, 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.”