Crossings pact in failure

Rice hopes to revive Palestinian-Israeli agreement on her Mideast visit

September 30, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood and Paul Richter | Ken Ellingwood and Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- American officials declared a big breakthrough last year when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians to ease the flow of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip.

But with Rice poised to return here next week, the pact lies in tatters, amid continuing violence and mutual finger-pointing between Israel and its neighbors.

Forged after intensive, wee-hours diplomacy by Rice in November, the accord sought to improve freedom of movement as a way to jump-start the battered economy and give the Palestinians more control over Gaza's border openings to Egypt, Israel and beyond after Israel's unilateral pullout months earlier.

Besides laying out the terms of more open access through the main crossings at Karni and Rafah, the agreement called for bus convoys between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and foresaw development of a seaport in Gaza and reconstruction of its damaged airport.

But few provisions were carried out, and the main Gaza crossings have remained constricted or shut, leaving Palestinian farmers unable to export crops and deepening a sense of confinement felt by many of its 1.3 million residents. The United Nations said in a recent report that the flow through Karni is lower now than when the agreement was crafted.

"The crossings agreement has joined the great pile of sand in which the Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni and the road map plans have been buried," the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn wrote in the daily Haaretz newspaper in July, referring to earlier U.S. initiatives.

Israel and the Palestinians blame each other for the collapse, which has underscored the difficulty of carrying out even modest peace initiatives. The Palestinians say Israel stalled in implementing the agreement, while the Israelis attribute their continuing hesitance to security concerns, such as renewed rocket fire out of Gaza and the capture in June of an Israeli soldier that resulted in an Israeli military incursion.

During her swing through the Middle East, which begins Monday in Saudi Arabia and also includes a stop in Cairo, Egypt, Rice hopes to rescue the crossing agreement as a part of her mission to find ways of renewing the peace process. She is to meet with leaders of moderate Arab states, Palestinians and Israelis to discuss the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, Palestinian-Israeli issues, Iran and Iraq. Israeli and Palestinian officials say they want to salvage the borders agreement.

In addition, European Union officials are considering whether to renew the assignment of monitors posted at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Freedom of movement for Palestinians is one of the most central and problematic issues in day-to-day dealings with Israel. The crossings arrangement brokered by Rice was seen as a way for both sides to win: The Palestinians could develop the Gaza economy through increased trade while Israel would gain security and further world support for its Gaza pullout.

Under the six-point agreement, the Karni crossing, the main cargo portal between Gaza and Israel, and Rafah were to operate "continuously."

The Rafah crossing was to be handed to the Palestinians, with Israel keeping track of who entered from Egypt by live video and computerized data feeds.

Also, the two sides were given a month to work out arrangements for bus convoys that would carry Palestinian passengers between the West Bank and Gaza, which have been largely isolated from each other by Israeli travel restrictions.

The Palestinian side was responsible for guarding crossings from new attacks by militants, and was to cooperate with Israeli and U.S. officials on security issues. The Palestinians were also to crack down on smuggling of weapons and explosives at Rafah, a chaotic border town with a tradition of tunnels for sneaking arms and contraband goods into Gaza. But the deal began to unravel almost as soon as Rice had left town.

Since then, Karni has been open irregularly, and currently, an average of 30 to 40 truckloads per month are making their way out of Gaza through the crossing - well short of the pact's monthly goal of 400.

Ken Ellingwood and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.

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