Quartet to Israel: Gaza Convoys Must Start This Week

Israel must fulfill all its obligations under last month's Rafah agreement with the Palestinian Authority by this coming Wednesday, when an international conference of donor states will open in London, the United States and other members of the Quartet demanded this weekend.

In particular, they said, Israel must resume talks with the Palestinians on running regular convoys between Gaza and the West Bank - which, under the agreement, were supposed to start this Thursday - and significantly ease movement restrictions within the West Bank. Israel suspended the convoy talks last week in response to the suicide bombing in Netanya, and said that they would resume only once the PA begins taking action against the terrorist organizations.

But senior government sources said they feared that Israel's violation of the Rafah agreement would turn the donor conference into a platform for criticism of Israel, thereby undermining the country's diplomatic gains from the disengagement.

In a Friday afternoon briefing for representatives of the international community in Tel Aviv, Brigadier General Eitan Dangot, the Israel Defense Forces liaison to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Major General Yossi Mishlav, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, said that in any case, there was no chance that the convoys could begin this Thursday, since Israel needs at least a week to make the necessary preparations. But a senior government source said that if there are no terror attacks over the next few days, the first experimental convoy would take place this Thursday, consisting of a single bus between Gaza and Tarqumiya in the West Bank.

In talks this weekend with representatives of the Quartet (which consists of the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia), C. David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that the Americans are determined to see the convoys run by December 15, as called for in the agreement. Senior Palestinian officials say that they received a similar message from the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles.

American officials also told the other Quartet members this weekend that the Palestinians, contrary to Israel's claims, are honoring their end of the Rafah agreement. The "violations" cited by Israel, an American diplomat said, are due solely to a technical problem that has caused a delay in the transmission of data from the Rafah crossing, on the Gaza-Egypt border, to the office where Israeli officials are allowed to examine it. He added that the U.S. is making an effort to purchase new equipment that would satisfy Israel's demands for real-time data transmission.

Meanwhile, a new report prepared by the World Bank in advance of the donor conference blames Israel for the bulk of the economic problems in the territories and recommends that no further economic aid be given to the PA until Israel implements its side of the Rafah agreement. It also recommends conditioning further aid on administrative and economic reforms in the PA.

The report attributed most of the PA's economic problems to various movement restrictions imposed by Israel, including limitations on the number of Palestinians working in Israel - which it said fell by 25 percent in the third quarter compared to the second quarter - and various impediments to agricultural exports from Gaza, which go through Israel. It demanded that Jerusalem honor its commitment to allow 35,000 Palestinians a day to work in Israel and also recommended that the donor nations pressure Israel not to stop allowing Gazans to work in the country at the end of 2007, as currently planned.

The report acknowledged that Israel says the movement restrictions are necessary for security, but argued that the ongoing economic crisis in the PA endangers Israel's security more than Palestinian freedom of movement would.