JERUSALEM (AFP) – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured an agreement from Israel for the opening of the Gaza Strip”s borders after warnings by the Palestinians that the territory would become a giant prison.
After holding round-the-clock talks with officials from both sides on Tuesday, Rice announced a deal had been reached for the reopening of the main Rafah crossing into Egypt would open in 10 days” time.
Flanked by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and former World Bank chief Wolfensohn who played a mediating role, Rice said the two sides had resolved outstanding issues particularly on the key Rafah terminal between Gaza and Egypt which should now reopen later this month.
"I am pleased to announce today that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have an agreement on access and freedom of movement," the chief US diplomat told reporters.
The announcement came after Rice postponed her departure for a regional conference in Asia to throw her personal prestige into an effort to win a much-needed victory for the moribund Middle East peace process.
The accord targeted November 25 for the opening of the Rafah terminal, one of the key issues left over after Israel”s landmark withdrawal from Gaza in September.
It also provided for the continuous operation of Gaza crossing points suchg as the Karni and Erez crossings into Israel and said Israel would permit the export of of all agricultural products from the territory during the 2005 harvest season.
Israel agreed to allow the passage of convoys to facilitate the movement of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank, according to a text released by the State Department.
It said that Israel would speed work on removing checkpoints to allow greater freedom of movement on the West Bank "to the maximum extent possible" with work on measures to be completed by December 31.
It said construction of a seaport could begin but discussions on the airport for Gaza would continue.
A spokesman for Solana confirmed that an agreement had been reached over the issue of control at the Rafah border crossing which will involve a role for EU monitors.
"We have always said that we will would play a third party role at Rafah if there was a request. The request will be in the agreement," the spokeswoman told AFP ahead of Rice”s announcement.
The Palestinians have frequently warned the territory risks being turned into a giant prison unless they have regular access both to the outside world and the West Bank.
Israel had cited security concerns for not agreeing to earlier proposals, prompting accusations from Wolfensohn that it was dragging its heels.
Rice met with Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz on Tuesday in Jerusalem as part of a final push for Israel to accept the proposed agreement.
US officials said Rice conferred with a Palestinian delegation in the early hours, including civil affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan and finance minister Salam Fayad, at her Jerusalem hotel.
Dahlan had on Sunday lashed out at Israel for "suffocating" the Palestinian economy by dragging its heels over the opening of Gaza”s borders with Egypt and Israel.
Palestinian officials insisted that an agreement was being held up by the Israeli and said Wolfensohn had submitted a package of compromise proposals, including a measure to route the surveillance feeds at Rafah through the Europeans.
"We said to Wolfensohn we accept your bridging proposals," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP. "But there is another side (in the talks) called Israel."