Israel and the Palestinians were moving toward agreement on new security arrangements for Gaza’s border with Egypt, officials from both sides said Saturday, a deal that could allow Palestinian residents of the coastal strip relatively free movement for the first time.
The signs of progress came days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were to meet for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Also Saturday, the Palestinians broke ground on their first major development project in Gaza since the withdrawal — a $100 million complex that will provide housing for 25,000 people. The development, funded by the United Arab Emirates, was being built on the former Jewish settlement of Morag and was expected to take two years to complete.
Vital to Gaza economy
A border deal would mark a significant breakthrough. Before completing its withdrawal last month, Israel closed the Rafah border terminal, Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world. The Palestinians say reopening the border is vital for Gaza’s devastated economy.
A deal to reopen the terminal will have to address Israel’s security concerns. Israel, which used to operate Rafah, fears that militants and weapons will reach Gaza more easily without Israeli inspectors.
This concern was underscored in the days following the Israeli withdrawal. Border control broke down and thousands of Palestinians crossed freely in and out of Egypt without any security checks. With few exceptions, Palestinians have been barred from traveling to Egypt since order was restored.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also said Saturday that Egypt is not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons into Gaza and that anti-tank rockets and shoulder-held missiles have reached the area.
“There is no doubt that the situation has improved, compared to the first days, but we still see a relatively free movement (of weapons),” he told Israel Radio.
Egypt and Israel negotiated a security arrangement, including the deployment of 750 Egyptian border guards, ahead of the Gaza pullout.
Foreign inspectors proposed
Under a compromise proposal brokered by international mediator James Wolfensohn, Palestinian travelers and exports leaving Gaza would go through Rafah, with foreign inspectors supervising the traffic.
Incoming goods would be rerouted through Kerem Shalom, an Israeli-run inspection point in the area where Gaza, Egypt and Israel converge.
Wolfensohn briefed Abbas on the negotiations Friday and told him Israel agreed in principle to the presence of European inspectors, said a Palestinian official who participated in the talks.
Wolfensohn told Abbas he hopes to wrap up a Rafah deal by the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in early November, the Palestinian official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the media.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Wolfensohn chaired a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian officials last week, where subcommittees on customs and security were set up. “We are going in a positive direction,” he said.
A senior Israeli official said Israel is open to the idea of foreign monitors on the border and the Wolfensohn plan is “one of the options” under consideration. Israel wants to have access to the terminal’s computers to monitor who is entering and leaving Gaza, the official said.
Sharon was to meet with top officials Sunday to finalize the Israeli position on the border issue before meeting with Abbas, the official said, declining to be identified because of government rules.
Abbas and Sharon were expected to meet Tuesday, but the date wasn’t certain. Both sides have said it’s better not to hold the meeting at all than to have it fail.
Deadlock on other issues
Despite progress on the border issue, the two sides appeared deadlocked on other areas. The Palestinians were pushing for the release of some of the more than 7,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and an Israeli troop withdrawal from West Bank towns.
Israel wants Abbas to take tougher action against militant groups. Abbas has refused to use force to disarm the groups, preferring instead to negotiate with them, though he recently imposed a ban on public displays of weapons in Gaza. Militants repeatedly have flouted the ban.
“We call on our brothers who started the calm with us, who agreed to end military parades and displays, to start a new era and open a new page, the page of construction, development and investment,” Abbas said during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Gaza housing project.
Representatives from militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad signed a document Saturday promising respect for Palestinian diplomatic efforts. But the groups also reiterated their commitment to “armed struggle” against Israel.