Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he would consider reopening Gaza's border crossings if violence from the territory ceases, but defense officials warned Tuesday that such a move is a long way off.
The change, made at the request of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is considered a major shift in Israel's policy on this matter.
Rice and Barak discussed the crossings and the general situation in Gaza during a meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, and again at a tripartite meeting that included Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The U.S. Secretary of State repeated her request that the defense establishment soften its stance on the border crossings and look favorably on Fayyad's proposal to transfer control of them to PA government officials. Rice also asked Barak to issue a public statement on this matter.
The defense minister agreed, and following a meeting with the visiting Czech defense minister Monday, his office issued its statement. The statement was unusual in itself, because until now, Barak has avoided public statements about the crossings in general and the Fayyad proposal in particular.
In an announcement, Barak set several conditions that must be met before restrictions at the borders would be relieved.
"When conditions have matured in the future for an end to the rockets, the terror and the reduction of the weapons' smuggling, we will be willing to consider easements in the Gaza crossings through cooperation with representatives of Fayyad's government," Barak said.
Defense officials said Israel would not be fully opening the crossings in the near future since the violence has persisted. They said Barak's statement was aimed at bolstering the moderate Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Barak has previously opposed opening Gaza's borders since the Hamas militant group, which often fires rockets into southern Israel, seized control of the area last June.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday that the cease-fire contacts, which involve talks on the Gaza crossings, were ongoing between Fayyad's administration, Israel and Hamas.
Erekat stated that the efforts to work out a deal were complicated. Erekat said he wasn't sure Barak's statement was serious. "Announcements are one thing and action and deeds are another thing," Erekat said.
The officials said Rice pressed Barak during a visit this week to consider easing Israel's blockade of Gaza, which has caused widespread economic hardship in the territory of 1.4 million Palestinians.
Abbas, who wants to reassert his authority in Gaza, has offered to have his forces man Gaza's border crossings to help ease the humanitarian situation while preventing direct contact between Israel and Hamas.
A senior Israeli government source said that the change in Barak's position is probably also related to the discussions that Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's political-security bureau, is holding in Egypt on a "package deal" that would include a halt to rocket attacks from Gaza, containment of the arms smuggling into Gaza and reopening the border crossings.
Fayyad has been promoting his proposal for opening the Gaza crossings for several months, and has received broad support from the international community, especially the United States. According to his proposal, PA officials who are affiliated with neither Hamas nor Fatah would assume responsibility for the crossings and reopen them for use, possibly with international assistance.
Opening the crossings to regular transfers of goods would improve the lot of the civilians in Gaza. In addition, Fayyad's proposal would enable the PA to gradually return to the Strip, for the first time since it lost control of it to Hamas in June last year.
But despite American and PA requests, the defense establishment adopted a tough stance toward the Fayyad proposal, arguing that it would ultimately serve to bolster Hamas. Thus Barak's statement Monday is considered to be a significant reversal in Israeli policy on this matter, and most likely stemmed from U.S. pressure.
Meanwhile, Abbas announced Monday that he intends to meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on April 7, thereby ending the hiatus in their regular biweekly meetings that followed the intense fighting in the Gaza Strip nearly six weeks ago.
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