Rice seals deal on Gaza border crossings
Agreement gives palestinians full control over entry points from egypt
Prodded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel and the Palestinians agreed Tuesday on details for opening the borders of the Gaza Strip and allowing freer movement for Palestinians elsewhere, a significant step toward an eventual peace deal between historic enemies. The agreement, which gives the Palestinians control over a border for the first time, took all-night negotiations and a strong diplomatic shove from Rice. The basic elements of the deal had been in the works for weeks.
"I have to say as a football fan, sometimes the last yard is the hardest, and I think we experienced that today," Rice told a news conference where she announced the agreement.
She praised the deal as a "big step forward" in Israeli-Palestinian relations. "This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives," Rice said.
The agreement is a major achievement for the Bush administration, that some hope will encourage the U.S. to become more actively involved in Mideast peacemaking after years of a hands-off approach.
It makes a statement of progress that goes beyond technical details, freeing up Palestinian movement while addressing Israeli concerns about security.
The deal provides a much-needed boost to the shattered
Gaza economy. It also strengthens Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of January 25 Parliament elections and could help him fend off a strong challenge by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Rice and international Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn badly wanted Israel and the Palestinian leadership to use Israel's unilateral Gaza pullout in September as traction for tougher peace negotiations down the road.
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 they money was held up by the lack of a border deal.
Under the agreement, the Gaza-Egypt border would tentatively open November 25. It will be operated by Palestinian and Egypt border officials, under the supervision of European monitors. Israel had demanded veto powers, but in the end conceded on the issue, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Israel will receive live transmissions via closed circuit TV from the crossing there, and can raise objections concerning travelers, but the Palestinians have the final say.
The European group will be headed by an Italian general, said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath.
Construction of a Gaza seaport is to begin soon, and Palestinians will be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza in bus convoys, starting December 15.
The deal came amid political upheaval in Israel that could topple Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government.
Also on Tuesday, Abbas insisted that a Palestinian state was inevitable despite Israeli "intransigence" as he delivered a keynote address on the anniversary of a symbolic declaration of independence.
"A free and independent state is not beyond the realms of possibility, even if it is late in seeing the light of day," the Palestinian Authority president said in an address broadcast on radio and television.
In other news in Israel, an officer was cleared by a military court Tuesday of emptying his weapon into a Palestinian schoolgirl after she had already been shot dead, in an incident last year in the Gaza Strip.
"The officer was totally innocent of all the charges filed against him," said an army spokesman. - Agencies