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Agreement Reached on Gaza Checkpoints

There's been a breakthrough agreement in the Middle East today. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured a deal between Israel and the Palestinians to allow Palestinians to travel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and between Gaza and the West Bank. VOA's Jim Bertel reports that many in the region see this as a significant step forward in the peace process.

After weeks of work and tough negotiations, it was a final diplomatic push by Secretary of State Rice that got the deal done. At a news briefing in Jerusalem, Ms. Rice described the agreement as good for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives."

For their part, she said, the Israelis get the security they require. She added that the European Union would play an important role in implementing the agreement.

Under the deal, the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah is to reopen on November 25th. Passenger bus convoys linking the West Bank and Gaza are to begin December 15th, with truck convoys starting a month later.

The agreement gives the Palestinians control over a border for the first time and provides a much-needed boost to the shattered Gaza economy.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat thanked Secretary Rice for her efforts, but noted there is much more work to be done.

"But we hope that the day after Gaza disengagement will be a soft landing, not as far as Rafah terminal is concerned, but as far as real issues are concerned," said Mr. Erekat.

During her visit, Secretary Rice renewed U.S. pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to act against armed groups. She also pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to freeze settlement expansion.