Whatever else happens with regard to the trade and customs aspects of the Rafah crossing dilemma, Israel's approach to the security aspects represents a dramatic departure that bodes well for future border arrangements. Israel is in effect saying to the Palestinians that, under certain circumstances, it will drop many of its security demands concerning Palestine's external borders.
In more than a decade of peace negotiations--both official and track II (informal) talks--Israeli security officials and thinkers have insisted that during a long transition period Israel must retain a physical presence at Palestine's borders with Egypt and Jordan. The Israeli concern was that without its control, lethal ordnance would find its way into Palestinian territory, there to be deployed against Israelis. The Camp David II and other negotiating frameworks gradually reduced the length of this transition period, but even the January 2001 Taba talks and the later informal Geneva accord still provided for a three-year Israeli security presence at the future Palestinian border with Egypt at Rafah and at a Palestinian border with Jordan in the Jordan Valley. Israel's inspectors, integrated into an international force, would scrutinize every person seeking to enter Palestine and examine every object being imported for possible lethal or dual use applications. Even after the Israeli presence was phased out, at the end of a three-year period, the rest of the international force would remain, with the same authority to deny entry.
In seeking solutions for the Palestinian-Egyptian border and the Rafah crossing after Israel's full withdrawal from the philadelphi strip, the Sharon government appears to be offering a radically different solution. To a large extent, it is prepared to place its trust in an Egyptian role. It is saying to the PA/PLO: if you are prepared for the moment to cut Gaza off completely from the West Bank from an economic standpoint and establish a separate customs envelope, you and the Egyptians will have full control over the Rafah crossing--not after three years, but now. Never mind that the Palestinians see this as a disastrous option from the standpoint of Palestinian unity, and that Israel knows this and is calling their bluff. Israel is insisting on moving the crossing to Kerem Shalom and maintaining an Israeli presence there largely for economic rather than security reasons, i.e., because the PA/PLO wants at almost any cost to maintain the unified customs envelope.
The Sharon government has also signaled that the Kerem Shalom arrangements will of necessity be temporary. Within two or three years the Palestinians will in any case have a seaport at Gaza that will require a different economic regime. And the West Bank security fence will be completed, making it possible to establish "normal" border crossings for goods and people between Israel and both Gaza and the West Bank. Never mind that the Palestinians are unhappy with the fence (even though it came into being solely because the PA/PLO failed to prevent suicide bombings); the Israeli unilateral approach comprises a dramatic security departure that has positive ramifications for future links between a Palestinian state and the rest of the world, beginning with its neighbors in Egypt and Jordan.
These are the fruits of Sharon's unilateral separation policy. From the Palestinian standpoint, they are undoubtedly very problematic with regard to the economic and in some ways the potential political unity of Gaza and the West Bank. But they go a long way toward meeting Palestinian demands for sovereign borders. From Israel's standpoint, they constitute an offer to begin "Arabizing" the Palestinian security issue insofar as they reflect a new Israeli readiness to trust an Egyptian security role vis-a-vis Palestine, as well as a new Egyptian interest in taking on this responsibility.
Whether for the time being the crossing ends up, in whole or in part (i.e., the passage of goods separated from the passage of people) at Rafah or Kerem Shalom, Palestinians and the international community should take adequate note of an additional potential benefit of disengagement.- Published 5/9/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A make or break issue
by Ghassan Khatib
The deliberations over the future of the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt are of growing importance for more than one reason. First and foremost, Rafah is the only point of contact for Palestinians in Gaza with the outside world. Secondly, the way this crossing point functions will determine whether or not the Paris protocols will continue to be applicable. Finally, whether or not there is an Israeli presence will be significant in determining the ultimate nature of this Israeli disengagement from Gaza.
One important but partial aspect of the future of the Gaza-Egypt border was decided when Israel agreed with Egypt on Egyptian control through an Egyptian army presence on the southern side of the border. On the other side, however, there are still significant differences to be worked out in negotiations.
The Palestinian position is twofold. The Palestinian side wants an end to any Israeli presence while at the same time maintaining the customs arrangements agreed upon in the Oslo Accords under the Paris protocols. Maintaining the customs arrangements is crucial to ensuring that the economy of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remains unified. In order to realistically maintain these two requirements, a third party presence was suggested to ensure the adherence of the Palestinian side to the custom and security arrangements that will be agreed upon.
The Israeli side, on the other hand, is insisting on an Israeli presence at any crossing. But it also is not willing to maintain its presence on the Palestinian side of the border. In order to achieve this, Israel has suggested moving the crossing point to the tri-point area where Egypt, Israel and Gaza all meet. That will, from an Israeli point of view, ensure Israeli control of the crossing without an Israeli presence inside Gaza.
Here there are two aspects of concern for the Palestinian side. The first is ensuring as complete an Israeli withdrawal as possible, and the other is ensuring as free access to the outside world as possible. There seems to be agreement among all parties concerned, with the exception of Israel, that an Israeli withdrawal, no matter how complete, will not facilitate any Palestinian economic recovery as long as there are restrictions on the movement of persons and goods. Gaza is an extremely small market with very poor purchasing power. Unless there is access to other markets, starting with the West Bank, investors will continue to be deterred and no economic recovery will be possible.
All parties interested in making sure the Gaza disengagement is a step toward stability and political progress should be keen to convince Israel to change its position. If Israel maintains control over borders it will consequently maintain restrictions. This is true whether we speak of the Rafah crossing to the outside world, the Karni crossing to Israeli ports, or the Erez crossing to the West Bank.
The parties should not rush their efforts to work out the crossing arrangements. These arrangements are going to be the make or break issue for the economic future of Gaza. That in turn will determine whether the future brings political and security stability, or unrest.- Published 5/9/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
The meaning of ending occupation
by David Brodet
Disengagement is a very significant political-security step. But it also has economic ramifications.
Disengagement was intended in part to create a new reality for the Gaza Strip: international recognition that the Israeli occupation of Gaza has ended. But removal of the Qatif Bloc and other settlements in the Strip is not in and of itself sufficient to attain this objective. Evacuation of the philadelphi route is also required in order to end Israel's occupation. These steps will "release" Israel of its responsibilities in the Gaza Strip and end its direct control.
But leaving the philadelphi route, thereby ending the Israeli presence at the Rafah crossing, creates a new challenge of an economic nature concerning the customs envelope agreed in Paris in 1994 in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The Paris protocols constitute a commercial agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which provides for a uniform customs and trade envelope that enables the free movement of goods within the territories of Israel and the PA without any customs or other inspections or levies beyond those rendered at the external passages into the entire area.
Israel's new economic challenge derives from the fact that its departure from the Rafah crossing is liable to lead to the introduction of goods that are not monitored with regard to the necessary health standards (mainly for agricultural goods) or safety standards (primarily concerning electrical goods and medicines). There is also a danger that the customs collection system at the Rafah crossing will not conform to that employed at all other border crossings into Israel and the West Bank. This will create an advantage for goods entering at Rafah, thereby possibly hurting Israeli manufacturers. Israel cannot accept such a situation.
Hence Israel is not prepared to leave the Rafah crossing without an Israeli presence. The alternative--in the absence of agreement on the issue--is to carry out all customs and standards inspections at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, i.e., at the Karni and Erez crossings. This would place the Palestinians in a political and economic dilemma, because the trade and customs systems in Gaza and the West Bank would not be uniform, thereby violating a central principle in the Palestinian policy of uniformity in the Gazan and West Bank economic regimes. For Palestinians this creates a high potential risk of political separation between Gaza and the West Bank.
There are several suggested solutions for this dilemma. One, for example, is to involve a third party international presence in the form of a private company that specializes in customs issues or a group of international customs agents drawn from several countries, that would replace the Israeli customs agents at the Rafah crossing. Israel resolutely rejects this proposal on the grounds that such a step would violate its sovereignty. Indeed, there is no precedent anywhere in the world for a state enabling a third party to carry out its customs policy toward a second state.
A solution is needed--one that recognizes the need to resolve the Palestinians' political-economic dilemma while respecting Israel's interests. Both sides have an interest in maintaining the customs envelope for the near future. Hence the agreement that is emerging will be based on the removal of the border crossing for goods to the Israel-Egypt-PA border junction near Kerem Shalom. As for the passage of people, the new arrangement will be based at the Rafah crossing, with the details yet to be finalized.
This model will enable the Palestinians to maintain the customs envelope principle that was negotiated at Paris 11 years ago, with all its positive ramifications for Palestinian trade. Israel, for its part, can maintain a presence in order to protect its vital interests. An agreed working solution at Kerem Shalom can also facilitate the integration of the Dahaniya airport, which is only a few hundred meters from the Kerem Shalom border junction.
This looks like the only practical platform for agreement between the two sides. Operation of the new terminal would also require Egyptian agreement (the Egyptians are hesitant in view of the fact that they only recently completed a new terminal at the Rafah crossing at a cost of $6 million). In any event, even this is in principle a temporary measure for an interim period, until a seaport is built for Gaza. Operationalizing such a port will in any case require changing the customs envelope agreement, insofar as an Israeli customs presence there will not be possible.
But until the port is completed, for the next 2-3 years, there is time to make more orderly arrangements; indeed, conceivably new political conditions in the West Bank too will provide the basis for a different economic agreement. The completion of Israel's security barrier there can itself constitute the foundation for new economic arrangements, since the emergence of a new physical border increases the variety of possible solutions. - Published 5/9/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
David Brodet is former director general of the Ministry of Finance. He headed the Israeli delegation that negotiated the Paris protocols in 1993-94.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Thorny crossing remains a problem
by Ghazi Hamad
The issue of the Rafah crossing is one of the thorniest of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Israel views it primarily as a security issue, while the PA sees it as an issue of sovereignty with huge economic and political implications.
Israel fears that relinquishing the crossing will open the door to arms smuggling and the infiltration of "extremists", transforming the Gaza Strip into a "terrorist enclave" that will haunt Israeli security. This is why Israel has been so adamant on this subject even though it conceded one side of the border to Egyptian control.
The PA believes that if it agrees to an Israeli presence at the crossing or if the crossing is moved to another location, this will constitute a blow to its attempt to show that the Gaza Strip has been liberated. This is especially true since the factions have stressed that they will consider the Gaza Strip occupied if the crossing remains in Israeli hands or if Israel has any kind of role there. In that case, the armed factions will find an opportunity to resume their operations, which could lead to an escalation in tensions.
In addition the residents of the Gaza Strip, who have remained captives of the occupation for the past 38 years, are surely going to be eager to get a taste of freedom and travel abroad. Some will want to continue their education or reap financial benefits from the freedom of trade they believe will be offered at the crossing. If their freedom is limited because of an Israeli presence, this will only add to their grudge against the PA and would take away any joy the withdrawal brought with it.
Despite concerted efforts to find some kind of middle ground, the Palestinian and Israeli positions on this issue are still very distant from each other. Until now, Israel has opposed any third party presence, claiming this would not give it enough authority. The PA, on the other hand, feels that moving the crossing to an area under Israeli sovereignty--i.e. Kerem Shalom--will only complicate matters further and grant Israel too much authority in terms of the movement of travelers and goods.
It seems, however, that Israel is disregarding the PA on the issue of the crossing and would rather speak to the Egyptians. What encourages Israel in this respect is its success in hammering out a deal with Cairo on the security arrangements on the border strip. This is where the Egyptian role as mediator comes in, trying to reconcile the Palestinian and Israeli positions. The Egyptians have tried to find a wording for the agreement that would enable Israel to monitor through a third party. However, Israel rejected this suggestion and the parties seem to be back to square one.
While the economic aspect is not as important as the security aspect for Israel, the latter still wants the Gaza Strip to remain a market for Israeli goods. In fact, Israel fears that opening the crossing will lead to a surge in cheap Arab products undercutting Israeli ones. An open border will also give the Palestinians the opportunity to compete with Israeli products in some areas such as selling flowers and vegetables to Europe.
In the end, I think Israel will not be able to avoid leaving the crossing and handing it over to Palestinian control. Israel is under pressure from many quarters, notably the European Union. The World Bank has also tried to convince Israel that the economy of the Gaza Strip and its development depend to a large extent on the opening of the crossing.
There are those who believe that Israel is simply stalling to get improved security conditions. This could perhaps strengthen and support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been sharply criticized in Israel for conceding the border strip. However that may be, one thing is certain: the Palestinians will not feel they are free unless they are able to travel freely and import and export without obstacles or hindrances. - Published 5/9/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org
Ghazi Hamad is the editor-in-chief of the weekly Islamist Al Resala newspaper, based in Gaza City.
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