Gaza deal opens border

Rice is broker as Israel agrees to give Palestinians control of border crossing, movement of goods


JERUSALEM -- After months of fruitless negotiations, Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached a landmark agreement yesterday that promises to vastly improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians, opening the Gaza Strip to the outside world and allowing for freer movement of goods and people in and out of the Palestinian territories.

The accord marks a significant breakthrough between the two parties, which have been at odds over Gaza's future since Israel's withdrawal of its forces and settlements two months ago.

Worried about an influx of arms and militants, Israel had been reluctant to surrender its control over the comings and goings of the territory's 1.3 million people and the products they buy and sell. The Palestinian Authority meanwhile insisted that those restrictions had stifled trade and employment, and if the restrictions were not lifted that they would drive Gaza's population into deeper poverty and discontent.

It took a marathon, all-night negotiating session by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to break the impasse. Rice postponed her trip to South Korea on Monday night so she could end the talks successfully.

"This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives," Rice said yesterday at a news conference here before departing for South Korea. "This agreement is a big step forward."

She experienced the difficulty of negotiating agreements on even limited, well-defined issues, a sign of just how hard brokering a final peace agreement may prove to be and what kind of international pressure must be brought to bear on the parties to compromise.

On the Israeli side, critics have accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government of being in no rush to make more concessions to the Palestinians since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza. Likewise, the Palestinian militant groups, looking ahead to parliamentary elections scheduled for January in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are wary of what democracy will mean for their influence, and are reluctant to aid the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Before Rice's arrival here last week, Israeli and Palestinian officials had spent five months negotiating about Gaza with few signs of progress.

Shuttling between representatives of Sharon and Abbas in a Jerusalem hotel, Rice pressured and cajoled the two sides to come together in a rare display of aggressive diplomacy by the Bush administration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rice, however, considered these negotiations a learning experience for both Palestinians and Israelis.

"The parties are establishing now habits of cooperation, patterns of cooperation," she said, later adding, "So I'm actually not surprised that it took some time."

A key part of the agreement allows the Palestinians to open the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, perhaps as soon as Nov. 25. The crossing will be under the control of the Palestinians, Egypt and the European Union, which will assist the Palestinians with training and equipment at the border and ensure that the Palestinian Authority is complying with the rules set out in the agreement.

Israel will play a role behind the scenes, reviewing real-time video and data of individuals and goods using the crossing and notifying the Palestinians of security concerns.

But, according to the agreement, the final decision is up to Palestinians, who for the first time will control their own border.

"We want the Europeans and we appreciate their efforts to be our partners," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator. "We need them to train us to help us, to have experts, to bring us the technology needed, but I am glad that at this passage Israel has no control and no veto and they must start learning that - get out of our system."

Israel also agreed to allow for more shipments from Gaza to enter Israel for export, to allow buses to travel between Gaza and the West Bank beginning next month and for the construction of a seaport in Gaza to begin.

The two sides, however, are still divided over the opening of Gaza's airport, which the Palestinians have been seeking in recent months. Both sides however committed to continue discussions on airport repairs and security concerns.

"The important thing here is that people have understood that there is an important balance here between security on the one hand, and on the other hand allowing the Palestinian people freedom of movement," Rice said. "I think everybody recognizes that if the Palestinian people can move more freely, if they can export their agricultural product, if they can work, that the Gaza is going to be a much better place, and indeed that it is going to be a place where the institutions of democracy can begin to take hold because people's lives will be getting better."

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