Border Openings Historic Step for Gaza Strip
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RAY SUAREZ: For the first time in nearly four decades, Palestinians took control of the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, this one at the Rafah checkpoint. The deal to give the Palestinians control of Rafah and other crossings was part of an agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two weeks ago. It ended Israeli control of the crossing three months after Israel withdrew settlers and troops from Gaza, and is meant to foster greater movement for Gazans and their goods.
Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are preparing for parliamentary elections in January. But today’s primaries in Gaza for those elections and held by the ruling political party Fatah were canceled by the Palestinian Authority. The Authority blamed political opponents of Fatah for gunfire at many polling stations.
To talk about the Gaza opening and Palestinian political developments, we’re joined by Saeb Erekat. He’s the top Palestinian negotiator and a parliamentarian from the West Bank town of Jericho. And welcome back to the program.
SAEB EREKAT: Thank you, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: Given everything that’s at stake and things going well in the territories, wasn’t your government reluctant to postpone those primaries?
SAEB EREKAT: Well, this is the first time I think a party like Fatah in the Arab world conducts primary elections. We have held them in Jericho, Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Janine with no incident. And today when the gun fires began, we did not want to give the chance to anyone to say that the elections were rigged or somebody intimidated the voters.
These elections will be postponed until Friday in three or four days where the strictest of measures in security will be taken to ensure their success. But make no mistake I think what Fatah has gone through now is an orange revolution.
If you look at the results of these primaries in the towns and the areas I mentioned it’s producing a new facet, reformers and people not tainted with any questions of corruption or anything.
And I think the real preparation here is the fact that Palestinians are realizing that it’s the ballots and not the bullets that will shape the future of Palestinians.
RAY SUAREZ: How have been things been going in Gaza since the border opening?
SAEB EREKAT: Well, I think it made all the difference. And here I have to state on the record there are three significant things that happened with this border opening. Number one is that for the first time in our history we have a control over who comes and who goes through an international border. And this is very significant thing. This is the difference between Gaza being a big prison, 1.3 million suffocating or Gaza open and people are free to come and go.
Secondly, we have the element of the European Union who courageously accepted our invitation to come and help us in upgrading our human and technical know-how in running international borders in accordance with international standards. And for this I believe strategically we should look forward. This is a way where we will see a lot of third party in the future in Palestine and that element of peace, and thirdly and most importantly is the efforts of Dr. Rice.
I believe she made all the difference and I believe it showed that once the United States makes the intervention not to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians and the Israelis but to go at it and face the parties we can bring conclusions.
And this should show us that the third parties should not leave us as Palestinians and Israelis and should always stand shoulder to shoulder with us. I think Dr. Rice has pulled a miracle with these agreements. They have negotiated this for two-and-a-half months. All the deals were made there.
Maybe it was the psychology of the Israelis giving up their control and occupation 38 years later that was difficult for them maybe without it every step of the way. But the fact that Dr. Rice came and exercised her negotiating skills with us and the Israelis, we had no alternative, both of us, but to go along the way. And then today we have a border crossing that’s opening.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me ask you a little bit more about that because Fatah and the PA, you yourself have been critical in the past of the Bush administration for a sort of hands-off, arm’s length distance with the Israeli- Palestinian crisis.
Did this involvement by Secretary Rice signal something new to you?
SAEB EREKAT: Absolutely. That’s exactly what I meant. I meant the good offices of Dr. Rice enabled us and the Israelis to carry out, you know, to people in the states or maybe in the Arab world or in Europe, passage of the Rafah opening means a non-issue compared to the real issues of Jerusalem, settlement borders, refugees, and so on.
But the fact of the matter, this is the Gaza Strip — 1.3 million people — the most populated area on earth, six persons to a square meter. If you keep it suffocating without access to the outside world, you know there is also risk. So the fact that Dr. Rice came and exercised with courage this third party role in intervention risking failure and succeeding shows that, yes, it’s a mistake for anyone, third parties U.S. or others to leave Palestinians and Israelis alone.
I’m not insinuating right here that I want the U.S. to negotiate for me or to make the concessions required for me and the Israelis. It’s us and the Israelis who will do the negotiations. It’s us and the Israelis who will do the concessions required by both of us but the third party element, especially the United States is so crucial at a time when the trust is absent, the confidence is absent and I believe that’s where we have seen the brilliance of Dr. Rice in pulling out the strings and making it happen.
RAY SUAREZ: Your rivals, your party’s rivals for the loyalty, the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, Hamas, said that this deal really isn’t the big deal that you have just been describing it to be, that Gaza is still a prison, that the Israelis still hold ultimate control over who comes and goes. And they tend to say that they’re not going to cooperate.
SAEB EREKAT: Well, I believe they were — I saw their leaders on the TV and on the ceremonies of the opening of the Rafah checkpoint. But I can’t stand guard on their lips. I think this is very significant. This is servicing 1.3 million Palestinians. And that doesn’t mean that Rafah and that’s it.
We should really look between now and March. We have the airport, the harbor, the movement of goods between – and Gaza — which is also part of what Dr. Rice did — also the Sharm el-sheikh understanding being implemented, and above all, we need the U.S. to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in this Jan. 25 election, which I think will be the most significant thing to happen in Palestinian political life.
This will be a turning point in our political life. Look at the results of the primaries already taken. Look at the fact that we will go into these elections and I don’t think our life will be the same. If we add to that the dimension of the Israeli elections that are coming on March 28. And we usually lie and say internal business and domestic affair. I don’t feel like lying today. I think ever since the Israeli occupation came to my hometown Jericho in 1967, I have never seen something more significant in Israel than what I see now.
And I hope that once the dust settles down that the Israelis would have elected a government that is willing to go with us towards the end game, the end of conflict, the treaty of peace which I believe is doable. And I believe Dr. Rice’s experience in Rafah demonstrates that, yes, the U.S. can help, the quartet can help, and we need every help we can get.
RAY SUAREZ: There’s a pattern in these conversations both on the Israeli side and on yours as they point to the other side and say this has to happen, this has to happen, this has to happen, or else the deal is off.
What do you have to accomplish on your side as a confidence-building measure in order for the Israelis to believe that the PA can really be in control of the territories that they quit?
SAEB EREKAT: One authority, one gun, and the rule of law. I believe this is a major challenge that is facing us. This is President Abbas’ main program now. I believe you have to see these elections as part of this program because once these elections are over I don’t think the political life of any part, Palestinian Party, that is, will be the same.
The challenge for us is to restore the rule of law, public order, one authority, one legal gun. And we’re not doing this for the Israeli or the Americans. We’re doing it for the sake of maintaining Palestinian social fabric.
RAY SUAREZ: And let me just clarify. One legal gun, you mean an established police or some sort of military force that will be the only one, not private armies, not paramilitary, not militias.
SAEB EREKAT: No militias, no private armies. The parties shall not have guns. And I think a policy of zero tolerance to multiple authorities and multiple guns would be pursued after — with the Palestinian Authority. And I think if we can deliver this, I think in the U.S., in Israel, elsewhere, among the Palestinians above anything else, because that’s what we need to provide, the sense of security to Palestinians.
RAY SUAREZ: Saeb Erekat, good to talk to you.
SAEB EREKAT: Thank you, Ray.