b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    July 18, 2005 Edition 25                       Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Safe passage
. Vital for peace        by Ghassan Khatib
The economic viability of a future Palestinian state depends on the economic integrity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
  . Flagship project        by Yossi Alpher
It can be packaged to be as attractive to Israel as it is vital for Palestinians.
. Not to be divided        an interview with Mohammad el-Samhouri
The fact that the issue is being discussed by the parties shows importance of this link.
  . All aboard for the Gaza express        by Gershon Baskin
The best immediate solution is construction of a rail link of about 1.5 km. between Erez and Zikim.

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Vital for peace
by Ghassan Khatib

Safe passage is the name that was given in the Oslo Accords to the way the West Bank is supposed to be connected to the Gaza Strip. The accords stressed the need to maintain the integrity and continuity of the Palestinian territories. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are, by any standards, geographically very small and hence also comprise a small market. Should the two be disunited it would thus further shrink a Palestinian market and consequently strongly affect the potential for economic growth and recovery.

By the same token, the Gaza Strip is not on its own economically viable. It needs to be part of a Palestinian economy encompassing the West Bank in order to survive. The same, maybe to a lesser extent, can be said for the West Bank. In other words, the economic viability of a future Palestinian state depends on the economic integrity of the parts of this state, i.e. the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The premise on which the peace process has been based is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is also an integral part of what has become known as Bush's vision for the future of the Middle East, i.e., two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side. This political vision is one of the fundamental bases for the implementation of a future solution based on international legality that calls for Palestinian self determination in an independent state in the territories occupied in the 1967 war.

For that reason the Oslo agreements between Israel and Palestine specified specific routes devoted to the free movement of people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza. But Israel has instead been restricting the movement between the two parts of this one entity for different reasons. One is as a punitive measure, especially as it debilitates the economy. The second is political, with the aim of pre-empting the only way to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, namely the establishment of a Palestinian state. This particular Israeli right wing government is interested in annexing most of the Palestinian territories to Israel for expansion purposes.

Recent discussions and analysis over the unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip have again focused attention on the connection between the West Bank and Gaza. If Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip but maintains the current restrictions on the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza as well as on the movement between Gaza and the outside world in general, then the withdrawal will only bring catastrophic consequences for the Palestinians.

According to published World Bank records and statements by James Wolfensohn before he left the Bank, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without facilitating the movement of goods and people will lead simply to further economic and consequently social deterioration. That's why most of the current coordination, negotiation and discussion over the implementation of this unilateral plan is concentrating on the safe passage issue; in other words, on the regime that governs movement to and from the Gaza Strip, especially to and from the West Bank.

As a unilateral imposition, the disengagement plan is tailored to the needs of the occupation and Israel has shown no intention of changing the current regime governing the movement of persons and goods to and from Gaza. But the international community has been actively engaged on this issue and has already introduced into the discussion two concrete proposals that will at the same time ensure Israeli security and Palestinian movement. One is a newly introduced concept called "sunken roads"; open-tunnel roads dug five meters below the surface with concrete walls that will be used for traffic and possibly a railway and pipelines for water and electricity. Such construction should allow for the movement of Palestinians and the same time cause no danger to Israeli security.

In the meantime--such roads could take a year -and-a-half to construct-the second idea is to cater for immediate needs by utilizing new technology that scans an entire cargo without human inspection, thereby allowing Israel to replace the back-to-back system to a more efficient system. Whatever is decided upon, the integrity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one territory, which can be facilitated only by ensuring the free movement of goods and people between the two, is vital for the future economic prospects of a Palestinian state and therefore vital for the prospects of peace.- Published 18/7/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.

Flagship project
by Yossi Alpher

It has always been difficult for the Palestinian national movement to advocate a safe passage route between Gaza and the West Bank. Not only is safe passage extremely problematic for Israeli security and territorial sovereignty, but it was also, inexplicably, left out of the original Palestinian "narrative" of final status rights. Yet today, safe passage is probably the single most important conceivable project for ensuring a genuine solution of two viable states. Hence the international community should concentrate all its efforts on this endeavor, which can be packaged so as to be as attractive to Israel as it is vital for Palestine.

When the PLO resolved in Algiers in 1988 to adopt a two state solution, it "compromised", from its standpoint, by accepting the 1967 lines. Ever since, in the course of a variety of Oslo negotiating frameworks, it has insisted with impressive determination and dedication that final status borders must approximate those of 1967, and that any land swaps be symmetrical in size so as to maintain the sanctity of the 23 percent of mandatory Palestine the PLO undertook to accept for its state. Nowhere has this basic narrative of a solution included a safe land link between the two parts of pre-67 Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank. Hence, even when the government of Ehud Barak began to come around, in 2000, to the principle of the 1967 lines (including land swaps for the settlement blocs), safe passage remained a separate topic for bargaining, or was included in Israel's land swap calculations.

At the conceptual level of Palestinian sovereignty, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the PLO leadership. Were an Israeli leader to agree to all Palestinian territorial "narrative" demands and undertake to withdraw from every last settlement right up to the 1967 green line, including in Jerusalem, but refuse to accept the principle of safe passage, Palestine would be doomed as a state because of the separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

Indeed, even with a safe passage route, a Palestinian state will be hard put to function in a unified manner. It is only the small distance--approximately 42 km--that separates the two land units that, if properly bridged with transportation and infrastructure links (and together, of course, with close historical, linguistic and national links), holds out the hope that a united Palestinian state will not suffer the geo-strategic fate of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Even the emphatic Palestinian insistence today that Israel's disengagement from Gaza be accompanied by construction of a safe passage route reflects a previous lack of clear Palestinian thinking on this issue. Why wasn't the PLO this insistent in the course of the past ten years? Why has it required the prospect of Gazan semi-independence, economically (a different customs regime) and politically (Hamas rule?) for Palestinian leaders to start worrying about national unity? Somewhere there lurks the suspicion that the disdain for Gazans displayed by many West Bankers has contributed to this neglect.

Regardless of the mistakes the PLO has made, Israel retains a vital interest in a successful safe passage regime. The logic is simple: West Bank-Gazan geo-political unity is a key to the success of a Palestinian state, and a successful Palestinian state is a key both to Israel's capacity to remain both Jewish and democratic, and to the chances for long term peaceful coexistence with the Arab and Muslim worlds. In contrast, a separate Gazan basket-case mini-state on Israel's doorstep is a sure recipe for political, demographic and ultimately military disaster for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Moreover, to be perfectly frank, safe passage is also a guarantee of Israel's long-term capacity to threaten a Palestinian state with instant and devastating retaliation if it ever poses a serious threat to Israel. Once the land link is up and functioning and is contributing to Palestinian prosperity, and no matter how semi-sovereign or ex-territorial its status, Israel's ability to sever it with two tanks and a platoon of soldiers is obvious to everyone. Safe passage means that, geo-strategically, Israel will always retain a potential grip on the Palestinian jugular. All in all, PM Sharon's insistence right now on discussing only the "safe passage" of convoys of trucks reflects real strategic shortsightedness.

Israel, Palestine, and the international community have every interest in facilitating safe passage. Precisely because a sunken road, or a road on stilts, will take ten years to plan, approve, and build, all sides have an interest in starting on the project immediately. It should be the starting point for the Rand Corporation's dramatic "arc" plan, not only because it ensures unity, but because it bypasses the regional jealousies and imbalances that would inevitably accompany the laying of railroad tracks in Gaza or the building of a superhighway in the West Bank. And because it will be built in Israel it will provide Israelis with welcome investment and employment input.

>From the standpoint of the Bush administration, concentrating on a real safe passage solution now, irrespective of the status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would send a clear message of long-term commitment to a two-state solution without endangering anyone's security in the short term. This should be Mr. Wolfensohn's flagship project!- Published 18/7/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

Not to be divided
an interview with Mohammad el-Samhouri

bitterlemons: Why is the issue of safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on the agenda now?

Samhouri : For two reasons. One is to secure a link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in order to maintain economic and human contact between the two parts of the Palestinian entity. The Palestinian view is that once Israel has implemented its plan for disengagement from Gaza there must not be restrictions on the movement between the West Bank and Gaza. The plan itself, as approved by the Israeli government, does not have anything to say about safe passage. That is why it is important to talk about it at this time in particular.

Second, there is international understanding for the Palestinian position, and there is pressure on Israel to establish a safe link. It is important for us to have the international community on board with respect to the continued contact between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in general in terms of what is happening in the West Bank with the wall, the settlements, expansion of the settlements and the cantonization of the West Bank.

The international community understands our concern over the establishment of a safe passage, and the World Bank, James Wolfensohn and the EU all realize there is a problem if Israel leaves the Gaza Strip and contact with the West Bank remains severely restricted. So it is important at this time to bring this issue to the table.

bitterlemons: What is the Palestinian side doing about it?

Samhouri : There is continued pressure from the Palestinian side for this link. The restrictions on movement are severe and damaging, and the Palestinian side wants the establishment of this link, even if it is gradual.

bitterlemons: In actual fact, what would such a safe passage look like?

Samhouri : At the moment, discussions on the long term are focused on the construction of so-called sunken roads that would link the northern Gaza Strip from Beit Hanoun with the southern West Bank. This road would be about 42 km long; there are different versions of its width. If we are talking about a two-lane highway, it has to be between 45 to 84 meters wide, the latter in case the possibility of a railway is taken into consideration. Israel is keen on the idea of a rail link for security purposes. Our position is that we would prefer a road link, which is quicker and cheaper to construct.

But even if there is agreement on this, we need to find out what to do in the interim. Here Israel prefers a convoy system, by which goods and people moving between the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be escorted by the Israeli army.

In any case, the fact that the issue is being discussed by the parties shows that there is awareness on both sides, as well as the international community, of the importance of this link.

bitterlemons: How important is this safe passage for the Palestinian economy?

Samhouri : First of all, trade between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is important in its own right, and this can only be facilitated with the smooth passage of goods and people.

Secondly, the Palestinian market needs to be as large as possible for the sake of investment and job creation. The more restrictions there are on any future Palestinian market, the less profitable it will become for investors.

Finally, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are politically unacceptable divided. They must be one unit in more than a symbolic sense in order for us to make a future Palestinian state a viable Palestinian state.- Published 18/7/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Dr. Mohammad el-Samhouri is a Palestinian economist based in Gaza and a former senior economic advisor to the Palestinian minister of foreign affairs.

All aboard for the Gaza express
by Gershon Baskin

Israel and the Palestinians have always agreed that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are a single territorial area. This was stated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 1993: "The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period."

The unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza calls into question whether or not this territorial integrity can be preserved. The "safe passage" arrangement that was supposed to connect the two territories was never fully practiced. In final status talks a land link between Gaza and the West Bank was discussed within the framework of territorial exchanges. Yet Israel has always been reluctant to enable a sovereign Palestinian route that would essentially cut Israel in half.

The nature of the permanent passage between the two areas will remain a subject for negotiations within final status talks, whenever they may commence. Meanwhile, there is a pressing need to find immediate and workable solutions for maintaining a link between the two territories in order to enable economic growth and development of the Palestinian economy. The solutions found for the immediate future may not be the same ones to come out of negotiations. Because the chances for successful negotiations on this issue now are quite slim, the sides should agree to arrangements that can be implemented rapidly at minimal cost.

There are a number of issues of relevance in discussing the possibilities for the passage.

First, the sovereign status of the passage is a permanent status issue and therefore cannot be dealt with properly within the limitations of the immediate need to ensure the connectivity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Sovereignty and rights for the passage must be dealt with in the framework of future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Second, any Gaza-West Bank passage compromises the separation barrier being constructed around the West Bank and surrounding Gaza. In view of general Israeli security concerns, it is clear that Israel will not agree to any kind of arrangement that allows Palestinians to enter Israel and wander freely from the passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Therefore a road link, either on a dedicated road or using existing roads, will not be considered in the near future.

Third, all new proposed routes that cut through Israel will take a long period to implement in order to overcome the many legal hurdles of Israeli zoning restrictions, political considerations, and the objections of environmentalists (beyond any other objections raised by the security services).

Finally, the most immediate need for the passage is economic; it must provide rapid solutions for the unimpeded movement of goods between the two territories. The movement of people and vehicles is more complex due to security and political issues; more time is needed to find suitable solutions agreeable to all parties.

The best immediate solution is construction of a rail link of about 1.5 kilometers between Erez (at the northern border of the Gaza Strip with Israel) and Zikim, which links Gaza to the Israeli rail system. A security checking facility able to scan containers would be set up at Erez. Containers would be sealed and loaded onto the trains for shipment. Once on the Israeli system, goods could travel to Ashdod port, Ben Gurion airport, and other points in Israel. With minor infrastructure developments, movement to West Bank points could easily be developed, including a linkage to Tulkarem. The most logical connection would be an additional rail link from Kiryat Gat to Tarqumieh in the southern West Bank, a distance of about 25 kilometers. This is the cheapest and fastest way of ensuring the movement of goods between the West Bank and Gaza.

In the future it is possible to discuss how the train link could be used to transport vehicles and people between the West Bank and Gaza. Once the rail link connections are in place, dedicated trains could be placed on the rails that would transport directly between Gaza and the West Bank, without any stops in between.

A number of additional options for the mid and longer term could be discussed in the future:

  • A "depressed" or sunken road, five-ten meters deep, 100 meters wide, and uncovered, is estimated to take a minimum of three years to complete at a cost of $150 million. The idea is supported by the security establishment in Israel, but strongly opposed by the environmentalists.
  • An "elevated road" would take 5-6 years to complete at a cost of $1,250 million. It is supported by the politicians in Israel, rejected by Israeli security, and opposed by the environmentalists. It involves engineering and operational difficulties.
  • A tunnel would take 6-7 years to complete at a cost of $1,250 million. The idea is supported by Israeli and Palestinian politicians, not supported by Israeli security, and supported by the environmentalists. It also involves engineering and operational difficulties.
  • A surface road would take 1-2 years at a cost of $100 million. It is rejected by Israeli politicians, rejected by Israeli security, and not supported by the environmentalists. This option is most favored by the Palestinians.
  • Any possible combination of these options requires further study and investigation.- Published 18/7/2005 (c) bitterlemons.org

Dr. Gershon Baskin is founder and co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, which recently published a policy paper on the issue of the Gaza-West Bank passage.

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