Rice brokers deal on Gaza borders
By Sue Pleming
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice announced a crucial deal on Gaza border crossings on
Tuesday after brokering marathon talks with Israeli and
Rice, who put her own reputation at stake by investing so
personally in the negotiations, had postponed her departure to
Asia for an APEC meeting, staying in Jerusalem an extra day
until she secured an agreement on opening the Gaza-Egypt
Access to Gaza is key to strengthening the impoverished
strip’s economy and giving a boost to chances for peacemaking
following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in September.
“I am pleased to be able to announce today that Israel and
the Palestinian authorities have approved an agreement on
access,” Rice told a news conference, revealing the rare
breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy. “This agreement is a
good step forward.”
She said the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the
strip’s gateway to the outside world, was targeted for
reopening on November 25, and the deal also called for
Palestinian convoys to start traveling between Gaza and the
West Bank within a month.
Rice said construction on a Gaza seaport could also begin.
Israel had conditioned the opening of Rafah on its ability
to monitor goods and people passing through, saying it feared
arms smuggling across the border to Palestinian militants.
Palestinians had insisted that Israelis not be at Rafah.
An Israeli Defense Ministry source said a compromise was
reached whereby Israeli and Palestinian security officers will
man a control room a few kilometers (miles) from Rafah
monitoring remote-control cameras at the border crossing.
Rice made clear that she understood Israel’s security
concerns and suggested the onus was on the Palestinians.
“Our commitment to security is strong as always,” she said.
“Progress like today’s agreement cannot continue unless there
is progress in fighting terror.”
Israel, which has kept control of Gaza’s borders, air space
and sea lanes since its withdrawal, has been under U.S.
pressure to reopen the Rafah crossing, largely closed since
U.S. officials had voiced frustration with what they viewed
as the failure of both sides to capitalize on the Gaza pullout,
the first removal of settlements by Israel from land
Palestinians want for a state.
Both sides had previously agreed to European Union
observers at Rafah, and differences centered on Israeli
monitoring of the crossing.
Israel had wanted a direct, online surveillance feed while
the Palestinian Authority wanted control over the pictures and
said a direct feed was an impingement on its sovereignty.
Israel fears militants could take advantage of its absence from
the terminal to smuggle in weapons for armed groups in Gaza.
In her suite overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, Rice met
separately with senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators,
constantly amending texts on a laptop computer until an
agreement was finalized.
Initially, the Israeli delegation dealt with Rice by phone
but later, Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon, arrived for talks. Israel Radio said Defense
Minister Shaul Mofaz also joined the negotiations.
International Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn, who had
threatened to quit because of frustration over the impasse,
left in the early hours but reappeared to stand beside Rice at
the news conference.
Sporadic fighting despite a ceasefire has put a damper on
Middle East diplomacy.
Rice’s visit, her fourth to the region this year, has also
been overshadowed by political upheaval in Israel that
threatens to bring down Sharon’s coalition and force early