Wednesday, March 14, 2007

TEL AVIV — A U.S.-brokered agreement to keep open the Gaza Strip’s main commercial crossing with Israel — hailed as one of the Bush administration’s few policy successes in the region — has been ignored, according to an Israeli-Palestinian report released yesterday.

Just last month in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) as one bright spot in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

But the volume of goods passing through the Karni commercial crossing dropped to a seven-year low, said the 38-page report authored by the Peres Center for Peace and Paltrade, a Palestinian commercial association.

“Implementation of the AMA was never achieved,” the report said. “The prolonged and intermittent closures of the Karni/Al-Montar crossing symbolized a new phase of conflict, heralding a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy.”

Frequent closures, truncated hours and insufficient staffing turned the economic umbilical cord of Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians into a massive bottleneck, with wait time for incoming shipments stretching to three months. As a result, the terminal is processing 65 shipments per day instead of the agreement’s target of 450.

The crush has allowed middlemen with ties to authorities at the crossing and companies to charge as much as $7,100 per container to jump the line, shippers say.

In addition to the special fee, companies are paying extra for equipment and personnel stranded by the delays, contributing to a rise in prices for some goods in Gaza at a time of economic hardship.

Israel’s government committed in late February to expanding the working hours and capacity of the Karni crossing, but little improvement has been made.

Israel’s Supreme Court yesterday rejected a petition by human rights groups to require the government to open up the Karni crossing.

The bottleneck in shipping between Israel and Gaza has compounded the misery of Palestinians, with the territories reeling from an economic embargo by the West against the Hamas-led government, which came to power a year ago.

The Palestinians completed work on a new government lineup, to be announced today, in an attempt to end the embargo.

Fatah, which is led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas agreed at a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last month to form a unity government after months of feuding that has left dozens of Palestinians dead.

However, the embargo is unlikely to end soon because the militant Islamist group refuses to renounce violence and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist — key Western demands for the resumption of aid.

In the new Cabinet, Hamas will have nine posts and Fatah will have six, according to local press reports.

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