Israel finally agrees to give Palestinians control of border

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The Independent Online

Palestinians stand to gain control of one of their borders for the first time in a wide-ranging US- brokered deal aimed at giving Gaza's population and its devastated economy more access to the outside world.

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hammered out a deal between Israel and the Palestinian leadership which should open up the southern Rafah border crossing, significantly speed up cargo traffic through the Karni terminal into Israel, and allow secure passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

As Ms Rice left the Middle East after extending her stay to press for a deal in all-night negotiations, Western diplomats said she had put Israel under pressure to agree a formula which - among other things - should bolster the political position of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President.

James Wolfensohn, the former chairman of the World Bank and the international envoy on post-disengagement Gaza, had expressed deep frustration in private that Israel's preoccupation with security details, while valid, threatened to prevent measures which could contribute to longer term stability and therefore security.

All the parties agreed that the proof of the deal would lie in whether it can be implemented. But while it can of itself do little more than arrest the headlong decline of an economy in which more than 45 per cent are now living below a poverty income of less than £1.50 a day, the Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Kathib said: "If implemented in good faith, this agreement will provide conditions to help jumpstart Palestinian economic recovery."

Under the deal, based on a draft submitted by Mr Wolfensohn, the Rafah crossing is "targeted" to open on 26 November as is the Karni crossing, the lifeline for exports and imports to and from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, to allow through 150 lorries per day by the end of the year instead of the present average of 35. As new fast, secure scanning comes into operation the total is intended to reach 400 a day.

In the meantime, Israel pledges "on an urgent basis" to hasten exports of the imminent agricultural harvest - including vegetables from 400 acres of greenhouses left behind by the settlers in August.

Bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank should start on 15 December and truck convoys on 15 January.

The Palestinians had argued that passage between the two sections was essential if a Palestinian state was ever to be realised.

At the heart of the new package is a compromise under which Gaza residents with Palestinian ID will be able to travel between the strip and Egypt, and goods pass into Egypt, through the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians will operate the crossing in co-operation with the EU which will have a major security role.

Israel had originally insisted on a central role in controlling security at Rafah through live closed-circuit television beamed to an Israeli-run control centre.

The live pictures will instead be provided by a joint liaison office led by EU representatives and consisting of Palestinian and Israeli security officials, but assuming the agreement works, will leave the final decision to the Palestinians. The agreement provides for the Palestinian Authority to consult Israel and the EU over goods or passengers any party judges as suspect but says this will take place "prior to a PA decision whether to prohibit travel or not".

While the agreement envisages work starting on a new seaport and "continuing discussions" on a new airport, Israeli officials said they had still not changed their view that this should happen soon.

Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said last night that the deal's viability depended on there being a "common strategic interest" on security among all the parties. But if so "this agreement could lay the foundation for bigger and better things down the line".

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