PALESTINIANS yesterday gained control of a border crossing for the first time as part of an agreement with Israel that ends the Gaza Strip's near total isolation.
The agreement came after heavy US pressure forced Israel to give up its demand for a veto on who could enter the strip through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. It was termed a "big step forward" by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who delayed a planned trip to South Korea and stayed in Israel in order to broker it with the backing of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The arrangements for the passage of Palestinians and VIPs at Rafah crossing, the strip's main outlet to the outside world, provides for EU advisers to work alongside Israeli and Palestinian counterparts to ensure that all parties are happy with the way the crossing is administered. Instead of giving Israel a veto, the pact specifies that if Israel raises concerns about an individual applying to cross, the Palestinian Authority must consult Israel and the EU advisers before making its own decision to prohibit travel or not. The target date for the opening of the crossing is 25 November.
"We knew we couldn't draw it out anymore on the one hand and on the other hand the differences were greatly narrowed on two or three items," the Israeli vice-premier Shimon Peres said. "The need to finish up and the shortening of objections and of course the presence of Condoleezza Rice resulted in the signature."
The Palestinians were forced to agree to live video transmissions of those crossing to a control room manned by the EU, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This will enable Israel to be certain of who is entering the coastal enclave, from which it withdrew in September. For now Israel retains controls on goods entering the strip.
"This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives," Ms Rice said. Palestinian leaders predicted the pact, which also calls for a dramatic increase in the volume of exports permitted out of the strip by Israel, would boost the Gaza economy.
The agreement did not, however, appear to have any impact on the poisoned atmosphere in general.
In a speech marking the anniversary of the 1988 Palestinian declaration of statehood in exile, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of trying to push the Palestinians into a civil war. Mr Abbas was more conciliatory in a speech read out in his name at a memorial conference for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier assassinated ten years ago. "If we have an Israeli partner willing to engage in negotiations, mark our words we do not need more than six months to conclude a permanent status treaty with Israel," he said.