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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 16:28 GMT
Gazans hope for a better future
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Boy tries to look through hole in steel barrier in Rafah
The Israelis may have left, but Gazans still feel imprisoned
When Fawzi al-Shaer sits outside his corner shop he is just 300m from the huge steel barrier on Gaza's border with Egypt.

This used to be a frontline where Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian militants. The outside of every building is scarred by the gunfire that once came from the army watchtowers.

And even now that the Israelis have left, life is hard in this battered, poverty-stricken place where many people have no work.

But Mr Shaer and his neighbours are enjoying a bit of good news - the border at the end of the street is going to open.

Although the Israelis withdrew two months ago after decades of occupation, they had maintained a grip on all Gaza's routes to the outside world.

They had refused to allow the opening of the crossing point at Rafah between Gaza and Egypt. But under US pressure, Israel has stepped back.

According to a deal brokered by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Gazans will be able to use the Rafah terminal by the end of the month.

Prolonged closure

"We'll go to Egypt," Mr Shaer says, surrounded on his plastic chair by some of his nine children.

"We'll be able to come and go freely. We'll be able to take goods to Egypt as well as bring goods in to sell here. With the crossings closed it's been like living in a prison where no door is open."

At least for now, travellers are not going to see any more Israelis. No Israeli is going to control their lives
Civil Affairs Minister Mohammad Dahlan
There has been huge frustration at the border's prolonged closure. It had been almost impossible for any of the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza to leave.

The Israelis argued that if they allowed free access to the territory, militant groups would smuggle in weapons that would ultimately threaten Israeli lives.

But in the new deal, Israel has agreed to permit Rafah to re-open under the supervision of a European monitoring team.

Israeli security agents will keep the crossing point under surveillance by video from a remote location. They will be able to raise objections to the passage of individuals, but it will be up to the Palestinian Authority whether they cross or not.

Watching warily

"At least for now, travellers are not going to see any more Israelis," said Mohammad Dahlan, the minister leading the Palestinian side of the negotiations. "No Israeli is going to control their lives."

For decades Gazans have hated having to pass through Israeli hands at the border. They have endured delays and seemingly random refusals of permission to travel.

For long periods the Israelis used to forbid all Gazans between the ages of 16 and 35 from coming or going.

Man waits to cross from Egypt to Gaza
Palestinians are waiting for a significant increase in traffic
And Palestinians will watch warily to see how much influence Israel might still exert at Rafah - even under the new arrangement.

The other major provisions of the agreement include a freeing up of trade between Gaza and Israel. This is regarded as critical to any hope of easing Gaza's chronic economic problems.

Israeli security measures had reduced the flow of goods to a trickle. The Israelis said that they had to guard against the constant danger of suicide bombers emerging form Gaza.

But Palestinians claimed that the territory's economy was being deliberately strangled and the international envoy and mediator, former World Bank chairman James Wolfensohn, had accused Israel of behaving as if there had been no withdrawal.

But the Israelis have now agreed to allow a significant increase in the number of lorries bringing Gazan exports to the border cargo terminal.

"The agreement is the best we could hope for," said Mohammad Samhouri, a senior Palestinian Authority official planning efforts to revive Gaza's economy in the wake of the Israeli pullout.

"What remains is the implementation of the deal. The agreement is at best general. It remains to work out the details."

'Failing regime'

Everybody here knows that the whole package of arrangements is hostage to events on the ground. It is easy to imagine the next bout of tension leading to a fresh Israeli clampdown.

Palestinian security men near Gaza border
The Palestinians see it as a struggle over land not commerce
There are certainly those in Israel who will believe that it has conceded too much.

"You can't treat the Palestinian Authority like a properly run state," said the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. "It's a failing regime that does not fight terror, and the security ring around it cannot be loosened."

But as Palestinians see it, the actions of the militants are intimately linked with Israeli policies - including assassinations, incursions and settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank.

"These are factors contributing to a very fragile political and security situation," said analyst Salah Abdelshafi.

"Even with these improvements on border crossings the situation will remain fragile, because at the end of the day the essence of the problem is not the economy. It's a struggle about land - it's a struggle about having an independent and sovereign Palestinian state."


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