- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

TEL AVIV — Israel yesterday granted the Palestinian Authority limited control of two border crossings and authority to build its own seaport, providing the Palestinians the largest measure of autonomy they have enjoyed since their territories were occupied after the Six Day War in 1967.

Brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the arrangement ends a two-month blockade of travelers and commercial goods that had threatened to strangle the Gaza Strip’s economy. The Israeli concession gives a major boost to the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of parliamentary elections in January.

Miss Rice had postponed a trip to Asia to participate in all-night negotiations leading to the deal, which for the first time gives Palestinians control over an international border at the Gaza town of Rafah, next to Egypt.

The accord, which still has to be completed and signed, provides an expansion of commercial and civilian traffic into Israel, as well as opens a conduit for Palestinian travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Construction on a Gaza seaport can begin while talks will continue on the reopening of a Gaza Strip airport.

The talks had been bogged down for weeks, undermining the optimism that had accompanied Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza more than two months ago.

“For the first time since 1967, the Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. … This agreement is a good step forward,” Miss Rice told reporters in Jerusalem.

“I think everybody recognizes that if the Palestinian people can move more freely, if they can export their agricultural products, if they can work, that the Gaza is going to be a much better place.”

The accord gives Israel access to information on Palestinians crossing into Gaza at the Rafah border point, which had proven to be the most difficult issue in the agreement.

Although the checkpoint will be manned by Palestinians, a team of European monitors will provide Israel with real-time videos of civilians entering Gaza when the crossing opens Nov. 25. Commercial goods will have to pass from Gaza into Israel before being permitted to cross into Egypt.

Passage between Gaza and the West Bank, to begin later, will be restricted to convoys of buses, taxis and automobiles.

“Our central demand regarding the Rafah crossing is that we would get pictures and data in real time, and that was reached,” said Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. “I think we’ve reached an arrangement in which we have the right balance between our security needs and between the economic needs of the Palestinians.”

The monitoring arrangement gives the European Union its most active role to date in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The compromise has been criticized by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The agreement was rejected as an infringement of Palestinian autonomy by Hamas, the hard-line Islamist party expected to challenge Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party in the January elections.

“It diminishes Palestinian sovereignty by having a European third party,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official in Gaza. “Gaza has become a big prison, and the Palestinian Authority is using the Rafah crossing as a pretext to show its superior role.”

Many Israelis fear a repeat of the chaotic scenes after Israel’s Sept. 12 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when Palestinians and Egyptians crossed at will through crevices in an Israeli military wall. Israelis say that the Rafah crossing could become an easy passage for terrorist couriers.

“I think this agreement injures the security envelop around Gaza. Smuggling from Egypt continues,” said Yuval Steinitz, head of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee. “If there is a port, rockets will arrive via the sea. And if there is a passage from Gaza to Judea and Samaria, sooner or later they’ll smuggle Kassam technology on trucks and anti-aircraft missiles.”

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