U.S. to Israel: Gaza Cargo Crossings Must Remain Open

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will demand in her upcoming visit to Israel that Jerusalem immediately remove all obstacles to the passage of cargo between Israel and Gaza through the Erez and Karni Checkpoints.

James Wolfensohn, the Quartet's special envoy on the disengagement, will also come here next week to discuss the issue, with the goal of resolving the problem before the start of Gaza's vegetable export season, which is in less than three weeks.

Rice and Wolfensohn plan to demand that Israel not close the checkpoints in response to terror attacks or general warnings about planned attacks, but only do so when there are specific warnings about a planned attack involving a particular checkpoint.

They also plan to demand that Israel immediately allow convoys of trucks and buses to start running between Gaza and the West Bank.

The two also raised the issue of cargo checkpoints at their meetings in Washington yesterday with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz did not offer a time frame regarding this issue, but promised Wolfensohn that he would try to resolve a dispute over the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt within a week.

The World Bank's representative in the territories, Nigel Roberts, told Haaretz that if the issue of the cargo crossings is not resolved quickly, it will weaken the Palestinian Authority and persuade the Palestinian public that dialogue with Israel does not improve its lives. Not shutting down the checkpoints in response to terror attacks or general warnings is particularly vital, he said, because if the crossings are not open reliably, it will be impossible to maintain a normal economy and attract investors.

Roberts, who is in Washington, confirmed that Wolfensohn recently gave Israel a list of steps he believes must be taken urgently to prevent the collapse of Gaza's economy - and which, Roberts insisted, would also solve all of Israel's security concerns. These include an immediate increase in the number of trucks permitted through Erez and Karni, to 150 a day.

Before the intifada broke out, Roberts noted, some 225 trucks a day passed through these crossings, compared to only 35 a day in the six months prior to the disengagement. Since the disengagement, however, the situation has deteriorated even further, and over the last two months, only about a dozen trucks per day have been allowed into Israel. The number of trucks entering Gaza also has dropped to about a third of what it was before the disengagement.

The situation is similar with regard to work permits, Roberts said: In the six months prior to the disengagement, an average of 6,600 workers a day were allowed into Israel from Gaza. In September, however, this number fell to about 100 a day, and in the first half of October, not one Gazan worker entered Israel. Yet a year ago, he said, Israel promised the World Bank it would allow 15,000 Gazan workers a day into Israel after the disengagement, and it repeated this promise to Wolfensohn on the eve of the withdrawal.

Roberts said that Israel could easily increase the volume of cargo traffic in and out of Gaza by stationing more scanning equipment at the checkpoints, and operating three shifts a day. Such steps would cost little extra money, he argued.

However, he admitted that the PA is also partly responsible for the delays, since it has been dragging its feet on necessary security measures at the crossings. Israel and the PA, he noted, have not held security coordination talks since September 5.

In his meeting with Rice, Mofaz also pledged that Israel would not interfere with the PA's parliamentary elections in January. However, he added, the PA is not doing enough to dismantle the terrorist organizations, and as long as this is the case, Israel will continue to arrest terrorists or, if necessary, assassinate them.

Mofaz also discussed Israel's concerns about Iran with both Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, and will raise the issue again at his meeting today with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which will conclude his Washington visit.

In addition to Rice and Wolfensohn, the outgoing American security coordinator, General William Ward, will also visit the region soon. But Israeli officials and pro-Israel circles in Washington have criticized Ward's work, saying he made little progress in his primary mission - reforming the PA security services - during a year on the job.