Gaza border agreement clinched

RAMALLAH — Palestinian and Israeli negotiators yesterday reached an agreement on opening the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah after a marathon negotiations session chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn.

The deal allows for the Rafah crossing to be opened on November 25 under Palestinian and Egyptian control and EU supervision. A liaison room that will receive live video transmission from the border will be set up with representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the EU, but Israel had to drop its demand for veto right over who comes and goes. The EU monitoring team will arbitrate any disputes between the two sides, but the Palestinian side will have the ultimate say.

“The deal is important because it will allow movement from Rafah and facilitate movement between the West Bank and Gaza,” Palestinian Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the negotiations, told The Jordan Times.

The agreement came only in the early hours of the morning at a Jerusalem hotel where Rice scuttled between delegations after having delayed a planned trip to Asia. At a press conference yesterday, Rice praised the deal as a “big step forward.”

“This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives,” Rice said.

Wolfensohn said the deal cleared the way for the international community to assist the Palestinians and help revive Gaza’s economy. Donor countries have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars, but the money was held up by the lack of a border deal.

According to the agreement, the Rafah crossing will be open for the movement of all Palestinian ID-holders as well as for exports from Gaza. Imports to the Gaza Strip will come through the Kerem Shalom crossing at a point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet and will be cleared by Palestinian Authority customs officials pending the completion of the Rafah crossing’s capacity to process imports.

Israel, under the agreement, is also committed to allow the export of agricultural products from the Gaza Strip with immediate effect in addition to allowing 150 trucks a day to leave the strip through the Karni crossing point into Israel no later than December 15. At least 400 trucks a day should leave the Gaza Strip by the end of 2006.

A safe passage arrangement for Palestinians to travel on bus and later truck convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be instituted starting December 15, and the two parties also agreed that work on a Gaza seaport could begin.

The agreement, however, is ultimately technical, and Khatib refrained from saying it would have an effect on political negotiations.

“The agreement should have positive consequences on the Palestinian economy, but for overall political negotiations more international pressure should be brought to bear on the Israeli government,” Khatib said.

This was also a message conveyed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who, in a keynote speech delivered on the anniversary of the symbolic 1988 announcement of Palestinian independence, accused Israel of trying to “shy away from the roadmap.” The roadmap stipulates a complete freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank, but construction of settlements has continued apace in parts of occupied Palestinian territory.

Nevertheless, said Abbas, a Palestinian state was inevitable.

“It will come inevitably for it is our right and it is a condition for peace in the region,” he said in the speech broadcast on Palestinian TV. “Our real battle revolves around creating this state according to our conditions and not of those of the occupation.”

Abbas accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to unilaterally impose “an extremely dangerous alternative” state which would be subject to constant Israeli surveillance and divided up “into cantons by the settlements.”

Abbas also said Sharon’s demands for a campaign to disarm opposition groups such as Hamas illustrate “the determination of the Israelis to bring about a Palestinian civil war.”

Sharon, meanwhile, is facing a growing political crisis, as new Labour leader Amir Peretz appeared set to withdraw his party from the Israeli coalition government. With Sharon’s own Likud Party deeply divided after the Gaza withdrawal, it could be difficult for Sharon to maintain a parliamentary majority. That could force elections within three months. The scheduled vote is November 2006.

Israel’s parliament is on Wednesday scheduled to vote on a bill to dissolve parliament and force new elections. That could force elections within three months. The scheduled vote is November 2006.

In other developments, an Israeli army court acquitted an Israeli soldier of all charges relating to the killing of a Palestinian girl in the Gaza Strip in October 2004. The soldier was charged with “confirming the kill” and shooting the girl, 13-year-old Iman Al Hams, once she had already been hit by Israeli army gunfire and was lying on the ground.

He was also charged with the illegal use of his weapon and with obstruction of court proceedings after asking soldiers to alter testimonies they provided to military investigators probing the incident.

He was acquitted after the court found inconsistencies in witness statements given by other soldiers. Defence attorneys also maintained that what appeared to be a confirmation shooting was in fact common Israeli army practice employed to eliminate immediate threats, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

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