Deal opens Gaza borders

Israel agreed Tuesday to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and travel to Egypt.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a small but significant breakthrough Tuesday that cracked months of Israeli-Palestinian stalemate over crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in August.

The deal, which is to go into effect in 10 days, appears to provide both sides with a critical minimum of what they had demanded: security for Israelis and freedom of movement for Palestinians.

Palestinians, for whom everything from economic to educational opportunities has been stifled by lack of access to the outside world, gained a commitment to have a steady flow of traffic between Gaza and Egypt, as well as permission to start regular bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. Construction on a Palestinian seaport is to begin soon.

Israelis won the right to jointly monitor - albeit by remote camera surveillance - the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Equally important for Israel was a US directive that mirrored the outlook of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's: The challenge to fight terrorism is now the Palestinian Authority's responsibility.

"This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives," Ms. Rice said. She added: "Our commitment to security is as strong as always. Progress like today's agreement cannot continue unless there is progress in fighting terror."

The six-point agreement effectively tackles the tip of the quandary rather than getting to the tougher roots of it: how to widen Palestinian freedom of movement while narrowing the latitude for extremists to attack Israel.

That dilemma, and US attempts to strike a balance between the needs of Israelis and Palestinians, has been proving extraordinarily difficult for the man who laid most of the groundwork for Tuesday's deal: James Wolfensohn, the Middle East envoy for the Quartet, which represents the US, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.

Mr. Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president, had announced only two days earlier that he was so exasperated with efforts to break the stalemate that he was ready to pack up and leave. Clarifying his comments, Wolfensohn told a jointly arranged Israeli- Palestinian forum that it was up to both peoples to find it in their interest to work toward a solution. "If you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming, and in New York, and in Australia, and [from there] I will watch with sadness while you do it."

Wolfensohn made it clear that while progress is a mutual interest, the security vs. mobility battle will continue to be waged, a political tug of war for which he believes there is a place to declare a "tie."

For many Gazans - who make up about a third of the Palestinian population in the territories, but live on just 7 percent of its land mass - life in Gaza can look like a dead end.

One group of Palestinian college students from Gaza is a case in point. Though enrolled in their third year of an occupational therapy undergraduate program at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, the only such training opportunity anywhere in the Palestinian territories, the group of 10 students has been prohibited from ever actually attending class on campus. Instead, they learn by watching a screen - a teleconferencing setup that is hosted at the British Council office in Gaza.

"I tried three times to get an Israeli travel permit," says Riham Al Muzain, a young woman with her face neatly framed by a white head scarf, "but they said that some of the young men among us might be terrorists. We need to be able to have the right to study there so we can help people here."

After violence soared with the start of the intifada in September 2000, Israel put strict limits on permits, giving very few to men under 35 - those who are considered more likely to fit the profile of a suicide bomber.

Gisha, the Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement, is a new Israeli organization representing the students as well as many others who can't move between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Previous Israeli-Palestinian peace accords view the two areas as one territorial unit, but Palestinians must hold a hard-to-get permit to be in a territory other than the one in which they were born.

"There needs to be regular access for students and professionals in order to get the training and skills they need, for Gaza to be a viable place," says Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, which means "access" or "approach" in Hebrew. "There's a ban on travel for students between Gaza and the West Bank that is not based on any security information: A student who requests one is automatically told "no."

Tuesday's agreement should change all of that and more, facilitating by mid-December the opening of a "safe passage" route - a concept considered an integral part of the Oslo Accords throughout the late 1990s. More goods, including agricultural items that can be spoiled during a lengthy inspection process, are to be allowed to enter the Israeli and Egyptian markets without delays.

Restrictions will remain tight, however, on who and what comes into Gaza. Israel's concern has been that lack of control over the Gaza-Egypt border will permit a free flow of weapons and militants. As a compromise, 57 EU security experts will monitor the Rafah crossing while a joint Israeli-Palestinian team surveys it from afar. This aspect of the deal was brokered in part by the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Salana, whose participation marks a renewed effort by Europe to participate in talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Rice acknowledged that the deal was a good jump-start, but that it may be premature to declare the peace process back on track. "We have challenges ahead, not just in implementing the road map," she said. "We have challenges ahead in implementing this agreement, too. I've asked that every couple of weeks, I can get a report on how we are doing on moving toward the implementation of the deadlines."

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