Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement that would open up the Gaza border crossings to Israel and the rest of the world. The deal was reached after heavy pressure was put on both sides by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice is attempting to create momentum in the peace process before a possible change in the Israeli coalition government in the 2006 national elections, following the recent ousting of Vice Premier Shimon Peres by Amir Peretz for Labor party leadership in recent primaries. The deal will allow for greater freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, including traffic through the Rafah crossing, and bus and truck convoys from Gaza to the West Bank. The agreement also has provisions for the Palestinians to begin building up a seaport and airport in Gaza.
In a press conference following the signing of the deal, Rice said that "The important thing here is that people have understood that there is an important balance between security...and allowing the Palestinian people freedom of movement. The other important point is that everybody recognizes that if the Palestinians can move more freely and export their agriculture."
The deal stipulates that the Rafah crossing will be closely monitored by Palestinian and Egyptian officials, with some outside observers from the European Union on site. Israel will be able to watch traffic going through the crossing via closed-circuit cameras, and will be able to voice objections over any person that they regard as suspicious, but will not have the power to veto an individual's access to the other side of the border. Rafah is scheduled to open as soon as November 25 after inspections systems are put in place.
Both sides were optimistic about the agreement after a round of all-night negotiations, calling the deal "ambitious" and "creative." However, the opposers of the deal had a much bleaker view of what might transpire with an open crossing into Israel. Member of Knesset and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that this deal is a new danger to Israel. He was quoted after the signing of the agreement, "The result is easy to see. There will be plenty of weapons finding their way to Gaza. Kassam rockets and mortars will be transported through Judea and Samaria to be launched at Israel."
Others present at the meeting said that the Bush Administration, through Secretary Rice, had pressured Israel too much into making concessions that are dangerous to Israel's security. MK Yuval Steinitz said, "Israel was pressured into opening up the crossings before we were ready; we gave in to pressure from the Americans."
Some Palestinian Authority officials were equally pessimistic, but realize that this is an important development in the peace process, and will ultimately help the Palestinian people. Civil affairs minister Mohammad Dahlan said that "No one is happy with the deal but we have to do it."
This agreement was also aimed at bolstering the stagnant Palestinian economy. The violence of the intifada forced Israel to stop traffic in and out of Gaza and close off the strip, which had a dramatic negative influence on the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product. The Palestinian GDP dropped more than 40% in five years. Israel guaranteed that it would allow all agricultural produce from Gaza through the border crossings to aid the economy.
In a speech on behalf of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, read by PA negotiator Saeb Erekat at a conference in Netanya, Abbas said this agreement opens up the possibility for a final peace deal with Israel. Abbas wrote, ""If we have an Israeli partner willing to engage in these negotiations, mark our words, we do not need more than 6 months to conclude a historic permanent status treaty."
Sources: Jerusalem Post.
Robin Wright and Scott Wilson,
Rice Negotiates Deal to Open Gaza Crossings, Washington Post, (November 16, 2005).