Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a deal between Israelis and Palestinians on the Rafah border crossing which connects the "disengaged" Gaza Strip with the outside world. Secretary Rice stepped in to help International Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn who lacked the political muscle and persuasion in the border talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Wolfensohn nearly quit due to a months long struggle for an agreement on the issue. The border crossing has been a hot button issue and opening it is considered a prerequisite to improve the quality of life of Gazan residents.
The border is tentatively scheduled to open on November 25. For the first time Palestinians will control the crossing. The European Union, however, will receive a feed of real time images in an office with an Israeli and Palestinian representative. According to the agreement, Gazans will be able to travel to the West Bank in bus convoys by December 15th and truck convoys by January 15th. Rice also urged Israel for further talks on the Gaza airport which was discussed in the negotiations. Time will tell if Rice’s words are backed up by the US administration and if the agreement is implemented in its entirety. US President George W. Bush’s lagging domestic support for the Iraq quagmire, the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah, and renewed claims of torture gives him more reason to try and reinvigorate the stalled peace process. But tough words have come from Washington before and fluttered after time.
These measures are crucial for the Palestinian people and are the first step to sustainability and rebuilding after 38 years of crippling occupation. The main issue still remains: will Israel continue its campaign of extrajudicial assassinations, missile strikes, mass arrests and restrictions without warning? The constant fear of incursions in the Gaza Strip still grips the minds of Palestinians and affects the prospects for future tourism as well as housing and business development. The Gazan economy cannot rely on being an export society, with the conditions of the state being interrupted on the whim of its neighbor. Israel used the guise of security frequently in the past to impose its invasive policy on the Palestinian people. While the borders will be under Palestinian control, one must fear the "punishment" given to the residents of Gaza if Israel becomes disgruntled with the border situation. Gazans felt Sharon’s iron fist after the "disengagement" through Operation First Rain and history tells us that the iron fist will make a comeback.
Remaining positive is great for those in the West who don’t have a vested interest in the progression of Palestinian society. For those more practical, we mustn’t forget the promises of Oslo: independence, an “honest broker,” reparations and a fair settlement for Palestinians. During the years of Oslo the Occupied Territories saw the biggest increase in settlements in Israeli history, the transferring of control to the Palestinian Authority came at snails pace, and “renegotiations,” restrictions, and separation strangled the Palestinian economy and workforce. Let us hope for the best in the border arrangement between, but let us also be wary, scrutinize and let Israel and the world know that this is just a first step in a long road to justice.