Mideast envoy says time running out for Gaza crossing deal
KARNI CROSSING, Gaza Strip – A top Mideast envoy warned Sunday that time is running out for Israel and the Palestinians to wrap up a deal on opening the Gaza Strip’s border crossings, saying it would be a “tragedy” if an agreement was not reached soon.The fate of the border crossings is one of the most important unresolved issues in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in September. Israel closed Gaza’s border with Egypt shortly before the pullout and has restricted the movement of cargo into Israel, the main market for Palestinian goods.The Palestinians say reopening the crossings is essential to rebuilding Gaza’s shattered economy, especially with the harvest season approaching. Israel first wants assurances that weapons and militants will not enter Gaza.James Wolfensohn, the international envoy who has brokered months of talks on the issue, met with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials late Sunday in hopes of breaking the impasse. The meeting ended without an agreement.The meeting coincided with the arrival of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the region, and both Wolfensohn and Palestinian officials said they hoped her presence would help break the deadlock.”I do believe that Secretary Rice is very keen to make sure that the deal is done,” Wolfensohn said after a tour of the Karni crossing, the main transit point for cargo entering Israel. He reported progress in the talks but said a deal was far from certain.”I think it will be a tragedy for both sides if that opportunity is not done, but can I give you a guarantee? No,” Wolfensohn said.In a speech in Jerusalem, Rice suggested that a quick solution is necessary.”Greater freedom of movement is a key for Palestinians, from shopkeepers to farmers to restaurant owners and for all seeking early, easier access to their economic livelihood,” she said. Rice also called on the Palestinians to crack down on militant groups.Speaking at the same event, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on the Palestinians not to waste the opportunity created by the Gaza withdrawal.He said the Palestinian Authority “has to decide whether it chooses the path of dialogue and peace or if it chooses the path of extremist terrorism and allows terror groups to exist and participate in the political process before disarming.”Israel is adamantly opposed to participation by the militant group Hamas in upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections.An official close to Wolfensohn, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the two sides have made significant progress on opening the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, Gaza’s main link to the outside world. He said the sides were further apart on reopening Karni, but a deal was reachable within 48 hours. Wolfensohn leaves the Middle East on Wednesday.Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was participating in Sunday’s talks with Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan, said Israel was working to open the Rafah terminal “as soon as possible.”The international community wants a deal sealed well before the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election to boost moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is fighting off a challenge by Hamas.Abbas has promised not to reopen the Rafah crossing without Israeli approval, but his government has been pushing to get the key crossing opened earlier.Talks between the two sides have faltered over Israel’s demand to monitor the Rafah terminal via closed-circuit TV. The Palestinians say European monitors to be stationed there should suffice to stop militants and weapons smugglers.Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said Sunday in Jerusalem that she supports the 425-mile separation barrier Israel is building along the edges of the West Bank, and that the onus is on the Palestinian Authority to fight terrorism.”This is not against the Palestinian people,” Clinton said while touring a section of the barrier. “This is against the terrorists. The Palestinian people have to help to prevent terrorism.”Israel says the structure is needed to keep suicide bombers from entering the country. Palestinians say it has prevented thousands of people from reaching their jobs, schools and farmland.Violence also flared late Saturday as Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian militant in the West Bank town of Jenin, the Israeli military said. Army officials said the troops believed the militant was going to open fire on a nearby military post.