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Rice Brokers Israeli-Palestinian Accord to Re-Open Border Crossings

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has brokered a broad agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on operating Gaza Strip border crossings. The deal, announced Tuesday, after marathon negotiations, would re-open the critical Rafah crossing - Gaza's international outlet for Palestinian trade and travel.

The Bush administration badly wanted the borders agreement to restore momentum in Middle East peace efforts that stalled amid violence after Israel's Gaza withdrawal in September.

Intent on keeping pressure on the parties, Ms. Rice postponed a scheduled Monday departure for South Korea and the Pacific region APEC economic summit to shepherd the talks.

She remained at her Jerusalem hotel, meeting alternately through the night and into Tuesday morning with Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, while State Department aides constantly amended the draft agreement on a laptop computer.

Ms. Rice announced the completed agreement at a news briefing before leaving for Asia, saying the accord will give Palestinians control of their borders that they want and Israel that security it requires.

"It is a major step forward for the Palestinian people, in their own movement toward independence in this region, and that is that they have control on one side, the Egyptians on the other," she said. "It's an international border. It will need a third party and obviously nobody wants to have this to be a border that is unsafe, and so I expect that everybody will cooperate as much as they possibly can."

Israel retained control over the Gaza Strip's borders and air space after it removed settlements and troops from the coastal area. It closed down the Rafah border crossing at the time of the disengagement, concerned about lax security there by Palestinian police .

Under the accord, Israel would not have its own security presence at Rafah, which is to re-open by the end of the month. But new monitoring equipment would be installed, giving Israel real-time information on checkpoint activity. Palestinian and Egyptian border agents at Rafah would be augmented by European Union security personnel.

The accord also provides for reopening two border checkpoints between Israel and Gaza - one used mainly for the export of Palestinian farm products and other goods, and the other for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza.

Passenger bus convoys linking the two areas would begin by December 15 and truck convoys would begin a month later. The accord also allows construction of a Palestinian seaport in Gaza to begin and talks will continue on reopening the Palestinian international airport in Gaza.

U.S. officials had been frustrated by what they see as the Middle East parties' failure to capitalize on Israel's departure from Gaza.

In public comments here, Ms. Rice pressed Israel to take steps to ease the daily lives of Palestinians and avoid actions that would prejudice final-status peace talks. She has stressed the need for the Palestinian Authority to support the democratic process and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism.

American officials say the smooth operation of the border crossings will be critical to the economic viability of a future Palestinian state.