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Rice Hopes to Rescue Gaza Border Pact

Deal she brokered last year to ease Palestinian crossings has gone nowhere. She'll tackle the finger pointing in a visit next week.

September 30, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

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 ongoing violence and mutual finger pointing between Israel and its neighbors.

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

Besides laying out the terms of more open access through the main crossings at Karni, between Gaza and Israel, and Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt, the agreement called for bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank and foresaw eventual 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 the territory's 1.3 million residents. The United Nations said in a recent report that the flow through Karni was lower than when the accord 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," Israeli journalist Aluf Benn wrote in July in the daily newspaper Haaretz, referring to earlier U.S. initiatives.

Israel and the Palestinians blame each other for the collapse.

The Palestinians say Israel stalled in implementing the agreement; the Israelis attribute their continuing hesitancy to security concerns, including renewed rocket fire from Gaza and the June capture 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 includes a stop in Cairo, 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 border agreement, though Israel appears to favor a less sweeping version. In addition, European Union officials are considering whether to renew the assignment of monitors who have been posted at the Rafah crossing.

Freedom of movement is one of the most problematic day-to-day issues for Palestinians. The crossings deal was seen as a way for both sides to win: The Palestinians could develop the Gaza economy through increased trade, and Israel would gain security and further international support for its Gaza pullout the previous summer.

Under the agreement, the Karni crossing, which serves as the main cargo portal between Gaza and Israel, and Rafah were to operate "continuously."

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

In addition, the two sides were given a month to work out arrangements for bus convoys to carry Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which have been largely isolated from each other because of Israeli travel restrictions.

The Palestinian side would be responsible for guarding crossings from militant attack, and was to cooperate with Israeli and U.S. officials on security issues.

The Palestinians were also to crack down on the smuggling of weapons and explosives at Rafah, a chaotic border town where tunnels have been built for sneaking arms and contraband into Gaza.

But the deal began to unravel almost as soon as Rice left town. Discussions over the bus convoys quickly ran aground. When a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in Netanya, Israel said it was not ready to move forward.

Facing repeated rocket fire by Gaza-based militants, Israel kept the Karni crossing closed during much of the winter, the harvest season for export crops such as carnations, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. Unable to get their products out of Gaza, Palestinian farmers left them to rot or sold them at a loss in Gaza. Losses were estimated at $30 million.

Since then, Karni has been open only irregularly. An average of 30 to 40 truckloads a month make their way out of Gaza through the crossing -- well short of the accord's goal of 400.

Some farmers have become so discouraged they skipped the planting season a few weeks ago, said Saad Khatib, trade policy advisor for Paltrade, a private-sector group that promotes Palestinian trade overseas.

Palestinians say the crossings agreement has failed because Israel didn't want to cede control of Gaza's borders in the first place. "There's no will on the Israeli side to improve this process," Khatib said.

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