What is the Gaza Strip border deal?

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About the size of Detroit, but less violent, the Gaza Strip is home to approximately 1.3 million Palestinians.

In 1967, when Israeli forces took control of it during the Six-Day War, the Gaza Strip became one of the “occupied territories,” shorthand for the predominantly Palestinian territories at heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel controlled the Gaza Strip for 38 years.

Nowadays, Gaza is more accurately described as the Territory Formerly Known as Occupied. Unhappy with the military, economic and political costs associated with protecting the Strip’s 9,000 or so Israeli settlers, Israel’s government unilaterally removed the settlers and the troops starting in August. By mid-September, they were gone.

Even though they got out, Israelis still maintain a large degree of control over Gaza. Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, airspace and seaspace, meaning Israel essentially controls what and who goes into or out of Gaza.

In the days immediately following their pullout, Israeli forces did leave Gaza’s border with Egypt open. That resulted in what the New York Times describes as the “chaos” of thousands of Egyptians and Palestinians passing back-and-forth between the two countries without governmental oversight. Scared that a loosely governed Gaza-Egypt border would allow Palestinians to smuggle in weapons, Israel shut down the border. With no access to the outside world, the already weak Gaza Strip economy suffered.

The Gaza Strip imports virtually everything it uses. Its biggest industry is export agriculture. Goods do pass between Israel and Gaza, but border controls are tight and, as a result, slow. Gaza’s agricultural exports frequently go bad while waiting to cross into Israel.

In other words, for Gazans to live and work, they must have access to the outside world.

Knowing that, international mediator James Wolfensohn has focused much of his energy over the past several weeks on brokering a Gaza Strip border agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the body that governs the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Wolfensohn is formerly the head (teller?) of the World Bank. Today, he is a special Middle East envoy for the Quartet, the joint effort that the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia have launched to broker peace in the Middle East.

Negotiations for more open Gaza borders started in September and quickly went nowhere. At one point, Wolfensohn hinted to the Israelis and Palestinians that their intransigence on the border issue was about to make him quit. “If you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming, and in New York, and in Australia, and I will watch with sadness as you do it,” Wolfensohn said. Apparently, that World Bank gig paid well.

According to reports, talks stalled until the morning of Nov. 14. That’s when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Jerusalem with the intent to use her muscle as President Bush’s right-hand (wo)man to pressure the negotiating parties into reaching a sensible agreement.

Rice gathered the Israeli and Palestinian delegations, along with Wolfensohn, into her suite at David Citadel Hotel (home of Yakimonotoo Sushi, Jerusalem’s “most popular Kosher Sushi bar”) and kept them there all day and all night, until they emerged the next morning with an agreement in hand.

The agreement has six points:

1) Gaza’s border with Egypt will be opened at the town of Rafah. Palestinians control the border, with help from a 70-person EU police force. Israel can monitor the crossing via closed-circuit video; if they see something or someone of concern, they can raise a stink with the EU cops.

2) Just in time for Gaza’s lucrative strawberry harvest, Israel and the Palestinians will upgrade Gaza’s border crossings to allow goods to get through more quickly.

3) Israel will soon allow convoys of buses and trucks to rock through the night between Gaza and the still-occupied West Bank.

4) Obstacles that restrict movement within the West Bank will be reduced. The agreement is so general on that point, however, it’s almost meaningless.

5) and 6) Israel will allow the Palestinians to build a seaport in Gaza. Israel also will agree “on the importance” of an airport in Gaza.

It may not seem like much, but it’s the first time since 1967 that Palestinians have had legal control over their access to the outside world. Condi Rice & Co. should be congratulated for getting the deal done.