Opening of Arab passage delayed; Israelis, Palestinians disagree on rules for West Bank-Gaza route


JERUSALEM -- The opening of a Palestinian safe-passage route through Israel was delayed yesterday, undermining a renewed spirit of cooperation between the two sides.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had insisted that the route, allowing Palestinians to travel by car or bus between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, would open at noon yesterday.

But negotiators were unable to break a deadlock over who should control the identity cards that will be issued to Palestinians and on Israel's right to arrest suspected terrorists along the 28-mile route.

The safe-passage route has long been sought by Palestinians as a way of linking their major population centers. It is seen as an important element to their sense of statehood. As a practical matter, it would make family visits and business ties much easier. Some young Palestinians have never left the Gaza Strip.

Along with the Palestinian airport, which opened last December, and a future port, it is an important side issue to the overriding question of what territory each side will control.

It was the next big item on the Israeli-Palestinian agenda after last month's signing of an agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, that provided for an interim Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Palestinians currently need permission to enter Israel before they can travel between the two Palestinian areas. Such permission can be difficult to obtain and is usually reserved for Palestinians who have jobs in Israel. In most cases, they can't take private cars into Israel.

The new route would allow Palestinians, with some restrictions, to take private cars or buses between the two territories. Those who have been denied permission to enter Israel would go on escorted buses.

Talks resumed last night, but Israel Radio said the opening would not take place today. Disputes leading up to yesterday's scheduled opening were fraught with problems of security and sovereignty of the sort that have marked Israeli-Palestinian talks for much of the decade.

Israelis, fearful that access to the West Bank would allow Gazans to slip into Israel, have insisted on the right to arrest suspects along the route. Palestinian officials have demanded to be told beforehand who will be arrested.

Israel also has insisted that it be the one to issue magnetic identity cards to Palestinians seeking to use the route. Palestinians are willing to provide information to the Israelis for the cards, but want to be the ones to distribute them.

For Israel, the Palestinian plan opens up the possibility that the cards could be tampered with or fall into the wrong hands. To the Palestinians, any requirement that people get the cards from Israeli officials smacks of continued occupation.

"Security and sovereignty -- these are ironclad principles which we must not veer from," Israeli Interior Minister Shlomo Ben Ami said yesterday. But Palestinians fear the safe-passage route could turn into an Israeli trap unless they are given assurances that no Palestinian with a travel card can be detained.

As last night's talks ended, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat indicated that a compromise was in the works, saying the distribution of the cards "must be a joint project." One suggestion mentioned on Israel Radio last night called for Palestinian and Israeli officials to share an office where the cards would be issued.

Both sides seemed anxious to play down any damage to relations, which had improved markedly since the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement. Erekat said the talks had been "serious and constructive." Israelis said the atmosphere was "excellent."

The route would start at the Erez checkpoint outside Gaza City, the major entry point between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and end at Tarkumiya near Hebron in the West Bank.

A second route between Gaza and the northern West Bank is expected to be opened later.

Hundreds of Israelis demonstrated against the opening of the route yesterday. One of their banners read: "No safe passage to terrorists."

The southern route won't be suitable for heavy traffic over a long period, because parts of the road date from the British mandate that ended in 1948, according to an Israeli official.

Ironically, the delay in opening the safe-passage route coincided with news that nine Israelis returning from vacation in Kenya had become the first Israeli travelers to come home through the new Palestinian airport in Gaza.

However, the nine found themselves in violation of Israeli law and had to explain their way past Israeli security officials.

The group, which included four couples and a man traveling alone-- ended their vacation in Kenya on Thursday. But they missed their flight to Tel Aviv because they were held up by a traffic accident on the way to the airport, according to the newspaper Maariv. They boarded a plane to Cairo, Egypt, but when they got there were told that they couldn't get a direct flight to Tel Aviv until Sunday.

They didn't want to wait. One of the group, Elie Zino, is president of the Hapoel Beer Sheva soccer team and had a game at 3 p.m. Friday. Another was designated as the first reader at a Sabbath service marking the end of Sukkot called Simchat Torah. "We had two alternatives," Zino told The Sun. "We could go back to Kenya or go to Gaza."

So they took an Egypt Air flight to the Palestinian airport in Dahaniya, Gaza, which opened with great fanfare last December.

Palestinian authorities were surprised to encounter the Israelis when the plane landed, but treated the group well, Zino said. As part of the airport's procedure, worked out in negotiations with Israel, the passengers were all put on buses after landing to be taken to an Israeli checkpoint for screening.

"How did you get here?" the Israeli security officials wanted to know. Told that Israelis are barred from using the airport, passenger Itzak Tujman replied: "I didn't feel anything was wrong. I just wanted to get home."

Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel said the ban stems from concern over citizens' security in moving through Gaza to the airport and in the air. Most of the airlines using the airport are from Arab countries and might stop in places hostile to Israel, putting Israeli passengers at risk and placing an added burden on the Israeli government, he said.

The nine Israelis persuaded airport security officials to let them leave when religious members of the group reminded the authorities that they could not travel after the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Friday.

Instead of going back through the airport with other passengers, they left through the Israeli checkpoint and to Beer Sheva by cab. Palestinian officials were delighted to have them use the airport.

"We want our airport to be used by everyone," said Brig. Gen. Sayez Zaidan, head of Palestinian civil aviation. But he took the occasion to strike a blow for Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza. In the future, he said, any Israelis using the airport would have to leave from the main airport gate -- not the Israeli checkpoint.

Contributing writers Viva Press, Joshua Brilliant and Mohammed Darwas provided information for this article.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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