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Monday, 2 August. 2021
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Jerusalem - In a welcome coup for US diplomacy in the Middle East, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, on Tuesday secured an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on border controls in the Gaza Strip.

The deal puts the Palestinians in charge of a strategic border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and eases the flow of exports from the territory, opening the way for the international community to plough a promised $2bn (€1.7bn, £1.2bn) a year into regenerating the Palestinian economy.

Ms Rice called the agreement “a major step forward for the Palestinian people in their own movement toward independence”.

The new regime will start to go into place next week when an Italian carabinieri general takes command of a special European Union police unit that both sides have agreed will monitor the performance of Palestinian frontier officials.

Weeks of negotiations mediated by James Wolfensohn, special envoy of the quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – had stalled on the issue of Israel’s demand to maintain controls on people crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

On Monday, however, Ms Rice said an agreement was near on an extended package of proposals put forward by Mr Wolfensohn’s team that also included the introduction of convoys for Palestinians travelling across Israeli territory between Gaza and the West Bank and the go-ahead for construction of a Gaza seaport.

The Palestinian side accepted the package but the Israelis still had outstanding concerns about security.

After a brief side trip to Jordan on Monday evening to pay her condolences after last week’s al-Qaeda bombings, Ms Rice returned to Jerusalem. Working until 4.30am, she averted a last-minute crisis after the Palestinians objected to attempts by Elliott Abrams, the White House’s Middle East adviser, to re-open detailed discussions on the package.

Diplomats said the Palestinians had at one point been close to pulling out of the deal, a potential disaster for the secretary of state after she put her credibility on the line by extending her stay in the Middle East.

Mr Wolfensohn said: “If you are an envoy of the quartet, you have a certain amount of possibilities in negotiations. If you are the secretary of state of the US, I would say there is a little more clout associated with that, and therefore to push it over the edge. I wanted to congratulate the secretary on having done that.”

Under the terms of the agreement, EU monitors headed by Italy’s Brigadier-General Pietro Pistolese will ensure that Palestinian officials conform to correct procedures in checking Palestinians travelling between Egypt and Gaza.

The unarmed force will not have any responsibility for arresting suspects. Israel, however, will be able to view live video of movements at the border at a joint Israeli-EU-Palestinian liaison office.

The Palestinians will consider Israeli requests to bar specified individuals, although quartet officials stressed the Gaza side of the border crossing would be under full Palestinian control.

Quartet diplomats said the significance of the deal was that it would help show the Palestinian people that there were benefits to be drawn from Israel’s historic withdrawal from Gaza. “But Gaza’s not the end of anything,” said Javier Solana, the EU’s visiting foreign policy chief. “It’s the start of a process.”

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