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What led to the deal to reopen Gaza’s borders?
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a focused push for a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, changing her travel plans and leading all-night talks that produced an agreement between the two sides. The negotiations over Gaza’s borders had been stalled since September 12, when Israel pulled its last soldiers out of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, ending its 38-year occupation in Gaza. The borders have been closed, for the most part, and Palestinians living in the territories have been isolated since the withdrawal, pending an agreement between the two sides. Palestinians say the free flow of goods and workers from Gaza to Egypt and Israel is necessary to jump-start their flagging economy, while Israelis fear terrorists will use the border crossings to smuggle arms or suicide bombers into Israel. Experts say the deal also has the potential to set a precedent for how future border crossings between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will work.
What are the details of the agreement?
The deal on Gaza’s borders includes the following provisions:
- Palestinians will operate the Rafah border terminal, the only crossing from Gaza directly to Egypt. The terminal will open by November 25.
- European Union (EU) observers will assist with security at Rafah.
- Cargo and other goods will be allowed to leave Gaza, a particularly urgent issue for agricultural exports during the harvest season. The Israelis committed to installing high-tech x-ray machines at the Karni border crossing to expedite the movement of trucks laden with Palestinian goods.
- Palestinians from Gaza will be able to travel to Israel and the West Bank in bus convoys beginning December 15.
- Construction on a Gaza seaport—a critical avenue for getting Palestinian goods to market—will begin.
Which issues were not resolved?
The down-to-the-wire negotiations were not able to address every concern. Some of the outstanding issues include:
- The Gaza airport. Palestinians want to reopen the damaged airport, but no deal has yet been reached.
- West Bank checkpoints. Palestinians want Israel to lift a series of checkpoints in the West Bank. While Israel made no commitment to do so, it agreed to work with the United States to identify the most troublesome checkpoints.
Why were the borders closed?
Israel sealed the Gaza borders just before the Israeli pullout. Israeli security officials feared extremists would take advantage of the pullout to smuggle arms into Gaza or launch rocket attacks on Israeli farming communities close to the border. In the days after the pullout, Palestinians mobbed Rafah, overwhelming the authorities, and thousands crossed into Egypt for the first time in decades to reunite with friends and family. Israel accused Palestinian and Egyptian authorities of being unable to control the traffic and closed the station, opening it only intermittently since. Another border crossing formerly used by Israeli settlers at Kerem Shalom—where Gaza, Egypt, and Israel meet—is being converted for use by Palestinians and is not yet open.
The closing of the borders effectively trapped Gazans, leaving many of them unable to study, visit family, or earn a living. "From a very practical perspective, [opening the border] will ease the terrible pressure on the people in Gaza, who have been suffocated," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
Why is Israel wary of opening Gaza’s borders?
"By relinquishing control of the external borders, you run the risk that dangerous people and dangerous capabilities will enter Gaza and militarize it," says Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That means al-Qaeda members, bomb-makers, explosives, missiles. Israelis don’t feel they can rely on the Palestinians [to keep them out], based on past experience." In addition, Herzog says Israel will not have the power to deny entry to people it considers dangerous at the Rafah crossing. EU observers, Palestinians, and Israelis will monitor traffic jointly with real-time, closed-circuit cameras, but "it’s an open question what happens if Israel thinks someone should be denied entry and the Palestinians disagree," he says. But, he adds, "There’s a delicate balance between Israel’s security needs and Palestinian political, economic, and other needs -- such as helping Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. There was an attempt here to strike a balance, and with all the considerations involved, it’s reasonable."
What impact does opening the border have on the Palestinian economy?
The Palestinian economy cannot operate without opening border checkpoints, experts say. "Gaza is an area that has to import all its needs," Whitson says. "It’s a basic livelihood issue. They have to bring in things like dried milk and medicine, and send out agricultural products, which are their only export commodity." And oftentimes, Palestinian products -- including tomatoes, oranges, cucumbers, and other items -- often rot before reaching market because of Israel security measures. Long lines at checkpoints cause massive delays and intense frustration, as well as prohibitively high transport costs for goods coming out of Gaza. At the Israeli checkpoint of Karni, for example, trucks are required to unload completely on one side of the border for inspection, and then reload on the Israeli side. "The only thing that can give any opportunity to Palestinians in Gaza is the checkpoints being open," says Edward Sayre, assistant professor of economics at Agnes Scott College and an expert on the Palestinian economy.
What is the current condition of the Gaza economy?
Dire. Over 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and unemployment is nearly 50 percent, experts say. One of the few places Palestinians could work was an industrial park at Eres in Gaza, where Israeli manufacturers could employ Palestinians within the Palestinian Authority. But the park closed down after the pullout when security concerns prompted Israeli employers to remove all their equipment, though the infrastructure is still there. If Gazans can gain access to markets in Israel and the West Bank and attract outside investment, they could one day take over Eres and set up their own businesses there, experts say.
What is the deal’s impact on the Palestinian people?
"The significance is more political than actual now," says Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestinian Studies. "For the first time, the conflict’s been internationalized. Also, the United States is beginning to ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deliver." Palestinians have been trying for years to bring the EU, which is seen by many to be more favorable to the Palestinians than the pro-Israel United States, into the conflict. Hijab says Palestinians are at the mercy of Israeli decisions on issues like checkpoints and land use, and can’t fight back except with "the light of public opinion."
Who currently guards the Palestinian-Egyptian border?
About 750 Egyptian police and some 1,500 Palestinian security forces are currently deployed along the border, experts say.