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Rice brokers Gaza border deal

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a historic border deal that will see freer movement between the Gaza Strip and the Jewish state, give the Europeans partial control of the border crossing and ultimately build a seaport critics say will allow nearly unrestricted transport of goods into the area.

The agreement was sealed after marathon diplomatic sessions lasting all night between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and diplomats from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are fears in Israel the deal will result in the mega-arming of Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

“I have to say as a football fan, sometimes the last yard is the hardest, and I think we experienced that today,” Rice told reporters at a news conference.

Elements of the agreement had been on the table for weeks, but according to reports, it took a diplomatic push by Rice to seal the deal.

During the night, Rice held meetings with Israeli and PA diplomats alternately in her hotel suite, the Associated Press reported, even delaying a planned departure to Asia by one day to finalize the plan.

This morning, Rice met with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to pore over the final provisions of the plan.

“This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives,” Rice said, describing the deal as a “big step forward” in relations between the arch enemies.

The deal reportedly allows for less restrictive movement of Palestinians across the Gaza-Egypt border. It also gives the PA control over some elements of the border crossing for the first time, and, say analysts, will provide a substantial boost to the Gaza economy. The European Union will help monitor the border crossing, which could be open as soon as Nov. 25, under terms of the deal.

Also part of the agreement, the Palestinians can now construct a Gaza seaport – which could take several years to complete, and the Palestinians will be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza in bus convoys, starting Dec. 15.

The PA wants to reopen Gaza’s airport, which Israel largely destroyed during the five years of the Palestinian Intifada. Israel has said it wants to wait before reaching a deal regarding the airport, but Rice stressed the importance of reaching such an agreement soon.

“I am encouraging Israel to consider to allow construction to resume,” said Rice.

Rice said what may appear to be minor stumbling blocks over the past few weeks are a big deal to the principal parties.

“Underneath what may seem like very small details there are hard issues,” she said, adding the U.S. was committed to Israel’s security.

The last time the Palestinians had control over a seaport, they were caught trying to smuggle large quantities of heavy weaponry.

In January 2002, Israeli commandos stopped the Karine-A water vessel about 300 miles off the coast of Israel. The ship, which late PA leader Yasser Arafat admitted to ordering, was carrying 50 tons of Iranian-made weapons, including Katyusha rockets, ammunition and explosives.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described the vessel as a “Ship of Terror” which “would have changed the strategic balance” between Israel and the Palestinians.

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