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Safe Passage?

Palestinians soon will be free to travel a road that links Gaza with the West Bank

by Eric Silver

October 7, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Within days, up to 1,000 Palestinians presently barred from entering Israel will be free to travel each day on a 26-mile "safe passage" that links the Palestinian-controlled territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They will drive on regular Israeli roads, but under strict security supervision.

Both sides hailed the agreement, signed in Jerusalem on Tuesday, as another step toward restoring the momentum of the peace process after three years of mutual recrimination under Binyamin Netanyahu's government of reluctant peacemakers. The land corridor was built into the Oslo accords six years ago and endorsed by Netanyahu at the Wye Plantation last year, but, until this week, the negotiators had failed to resolve the security risks.

Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who signed for Israel, said: "The intention of the safe passage is to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians so that they can see the fruits of peace. It is an important step in this new phase of the peace process. It reflects understanding and goodwill."

Opposition politicians assailed the deal, claiming that it would expose Israelis to a new danger of terrorist attacks. In an attempt to assuage concern among residents of the towns and villages along the route, Ben-Ami briefed their community leaders earlier in the week.

"Palestinians already come to Israel in a variety of ways, in less secure conditions. They are not supervised. Whereas on the safe-passage route, there will be clear regulations. They will travel only during the hours of daylight. There will be patrols and security screenings. We shall have almost total control of the situation. I can't say that no incidents will happen, but we did take the necessary precautions."

Under the agreement, the route will be open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Yom Kippur and Israel's Independence Day and memorial day for fallen soldiers. Palestinians wishing to cross between the two territories will apply to the Palestinian Authority for a permit. After the Palestinian security services have vetted the applications, the names will be submitted to Israel, which will have up to two days to check them against its computerized blacklist.

If an applicant is wanted by Israel, he will not get a permit. If he was suspected or convicted of security offenses in the past, he will be allowed to cross, but only on a bus escorted by Israeli police.

Approved travelers will receive a magnetic card, valid for one year. They will be free to use it for as many crossings as they like -- and to stay over. Ben-Ami confirmed that a Palestinian living in Gaza would be able to commute daily to work on the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority has as much interest as Israel in preventing terrorists from exploiting the safe passage to smuggle bombs and bombers. It wants the facility to succeed so that its people don't feel cut off from family, friends and business partners. It values any movement in the peace process.

"Nobody can guarantee that there will be no terrorism," Col. Rashid Abu-Shbak, deputy chief of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, said in Gaza this week. "But we will do our best to prevent any terrorist actions. In the last year, we have foiled many operations, which had nothing to do with the safe passage."

The Palestinian negotiators' main concern was not to be seen by their own people as agents of Israeli security. They insisted, therefore, that Palestinians applying to use the route will deal only with Palestinian officials. So the permits will be issued by Israel but distributed by Palestinians.

"We don't want them to be weapons against the Palestinians," Abu-Shbak said. "We want to keep the dignity of the Palestinians. They must be able to feel that they are no longer living under occupation."

In the past, Israel used permits of various kinds as a lever for persuading Palestinians to keep their noses clean -- and even to inform on their neighbors. "If the safe-passage permits are going to be used to recruit spies or humiliate our people," Abu-Shbak said, "we don't need them."

To reassure the Palestinians, Israel has also agreed informally that it will not arrest anyone it suddenly decides is a security suspect while traveling on the safe passage. As Minister Ben-Ami put it: "Israel does not intend, and did not conceive, the safe passage as a trap or an ambush in order to arrest those it did not succeed in getting by other means."

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