- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

JERUSALEM — A top Mideast envoy criticized Israel in especially tough language for moving too slowly on negotiations to open Gaza’s borders, saying the country is behaving almost as if the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip never happened.

Without dramatic progress soon, a rare chance to revive Gaza’s shattered economy — and the peace process — will be lost, James Wolfensohn said in a letter to the U.N. secretary general and other international mediators obtained by the Associated Press yesterday.

Violence, meanwhile, quickly escalated between the Israelis and the Palestinians after Israeli troops killed Luay Saadi, a top Palestinian fugitive, and a close accomplice in a pre-dawn shootout in the Tulkarm refugee camp in the West Bank. Saadi, the leader of Islamic Jihad’s military wing in the West Bank, was blamed for the deaths of 12 Israelis in attacks in recent months.

Islamic Jihad threatened revenge and launched at least two homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel, causing no injuries. Israel, which said it would not tolerate any attacks from Gaza after it pulled out of the territory last month, responded with an artillery assault on open fields in northern Gaza, the army said. There were no reports of injuries from the artillery.

Israel closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt, Gaza’s main link to the outside world, shortly before it withdrew from Gaza. It also has severely restricted the passage of Palestinian laborers and goods in and out of Israel, the main Palestinian export market, since an earlier wave of rocket attacks right after the pullout.

Israeli officials say the measures are solely because of security considerations.

In his letter, Mr. Wolfensohn, a special envoy working on behalf of the United States and other foreign mediators, acknowledged such concerns but accused Israel of unnecessary delays in restoring movement across the borders. He said the stalling is preventing him from moving on to larger reconstruction efforts, such as tourism, agriculture and industrial projects.

“The government of Israel, with its important security concerns, is loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal, delaying making difficult decisions and preferring to take difficult matters back into slow-moving subcommittees,” Mr. Wolfensohn wrote in the Oct. 17 letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“While the Palestinians were eager to come to closure, [Israel] preferred to leave difficult questions to committees that will not meet until after the Jewish holidays,” he wrote. A month of Jewish holidays ends this week.

Among other issues, he said, Israel delayed a key element of new border arrangements — the deployment of foreign inspectors from the European Union at Rafah.

The reopening of the borders is essential for economic recovery in Gaza, where unemployment is well over 30 percent.

Mr. Wolfensohn also criticized the Palestinians for raising salaries during a fiscal crisis, for their inability to control violence and chaos, and for the Palestinian Authority’s inability to function properly.

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