Peace road links West Bank with Gaza Strip

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The Independent Online

ISRAEL AND the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement yesterday to establish a road route between the land-locked West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.

ISRAEL AND the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement yesterday to establish a road route between the land-locked West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.

The passage is another step in the quest for Middle East peace, and advances Yasser Arafat's efforts to turn Palestinian autonomy into statehood.

Both sides regard the corridor, which Israel said would open "in a week or two", as profoundly important. To the Palestinians it is critical, as Israel has almost always denied them permission to travel the 28 miles that separate the two zones of Palestinian self-rule.

Often, the only alternative for the 1 million Palestinians who live behind the barbed wire that rings the Gaza Strip has been to go to the West Bank via Egypt or Jordan - prompting Arab accusations that Israel was responsible for breaking up families and stultifying the Palestinian economy's growth.

The Israelis attach great significance to it because it raises issues of sovereignty and security. Throughout the negotiations, they refused to sacrifice sovereignty by allowing Palestinians on to Israeli roads. Overriding Palestinian objections, they insisted their security services would control permits for the corridor, and monitor traffic along it.

As a result, the "safe passage" agreement includes stringent security measures. Palestinians using the passage, which runs from Erez Crossing, at the north end of Gaza, to Tarkumiyeh, near Hebron, must apply for permits in advance, a process that could take up to five days.

When they arrive at the border, their names will be logged in a computer, which will monitor whether they leave within the allotted time - two hours. Those without cars will use "sterile" - in other words, carefully inspected - buses. Those banned from entering Israel will be able to travel the route on a special bus, twice a week, escorted by Israeli border police. Travel will be restricted to daytime as the last vehicle must leave the corridor by 5pm.

None of this will satisfy members of Israel's far right, who predict that Palestinian extremists will use the corridor to mount deadly raids within Israel. Their anger is unlikely to be soothed by a "gentleman's agreement" under which, say Mr Arafat's negotiators, Israel's security forces promise not to use the passage as a trap to arrest wanted Palestinians.

Attention will now turn to establishing a second route, connecting Gaza to the northern part of the West Bank and to building a permanent southern link. On Monday, Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, told the Knesset that the land route was only a temporary solution; he eventually hopes to build a flyover linking the Palestinian zones.

The decision on the passage was hailed yesterday as evidence of a new spirit of co-operation in the Middle East peace process, which was given fresh life with last month's Sharm el-Sheikh accord. It will certainly give momentum to the peace process, which has been hobbled by crises and was largely put on ice during Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

But both sides will be acutely aware that enormous issues - among them, control of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jewish settlements - lie ahead.

Mr Barak has made clear that he will not countenance re-partition of Jerusalem. He emphasised this again on Sunday by attending the opening of archaeological excavations at twosites in the Old City, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

To Palestinian annoyance, he has also vowed to keep most West Bank Israeli settlements under Israel's control, singling out two by name - the sprawling new concrete town of Maaleh Adumim on the edge of Jerusalem, and Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Add to this the fanatics on both sides, from Israeli settlers to Islamic bombers, who remain committed to destroying the process. For all yesterday's celebrations, the road to peace remains a long one.

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