Red tape binds Gaza road link to West Bank

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The Independent Online

On paper, Ziad Abu Khalov, a 24-year-old computer engineer from Gaza, had every reason to celebrate. At last, after a year apart, he was going to see his wife on the West Bank. Better still, he would meet his baby boy, Amin, for the first time. He confirmed he was feeling "happy" and "very good".

On paper, Ziad Abu Khalov, a 24-year-old computer engineer from Gaza, had every reason to celebrate. At last, after a year apart, he was going to see his wife on the West Bank. Better still, he would meet his baby boy, Amin, for the first time. He confirmed he was feeling "happy" and "very good".

And yet, as he sat crammed in the back of an eight-seater taxi waiting to make a long-dreamed-of journey, he and the hundreds of other young Palestinian men queuing for the same trip looked about as cheerful as coroners.

The opening of the 28-mile road passage linking Gaza and the West Bank had been widely billed as a step towards Palestinian statehood, an historic moment when the two zones of self-rule would be joined by road for the first time since the Intifada and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Yesterday that step was finally taken after a three-week delay while both sides haggled over terms.

Few dispute that it will bring advantages. Yet it was done with a wary and sullen air. By 11.30am, there were about a dozen taxis, a couple of buses, and some 300 people at Erez Junction, at the north end of the Gaza Strip. They were waiting to make the journey along Israeli roads to the village of Tarkumiya near Hebron. Though their numbers were few, the wait at the crossing, beneath the gaze of an Israeli machine-gunner in an elevated turret, lasted several hours.

The Palestinians are well aware that their new right of passage was granted with a multitude of attached conditions. Israel, sensitive to domestic fears that militant guerrillas could use the route to stage attacks on its territory, has ensured that its security services have overall control.

Basim Hasanian, a 31-year-old jewellery importer, waited three days for his permit, which went first to Palestinian officials and then to the Israel security services. He then had to apply separately to be allotted a travelling time. "It is better than nothing," he said, gloomily. "Any country that wants to get its freedom has to face a lot of problems." He was one of the more fortunate. Eighty-one Palestinian applicants have been refused permission to use the passage because they are categorised as high security risks. Others must take a carefully checked, twice-weekly shuttle bus. All are checked in and out by computer.

Today Robin Cook, on the third day of a trip to the region, will travel from Gaza along the passage. The Foreign Secretary can be expected to hail it as a positive step, a sign that (unlike his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu) Ehud Barak is genuinely determined to push ahead with peace.

Plenty of Palestinians will disagree. Dr Haider Abdel Shafi, head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Palestine, was also passing through Erez Junction yesterday: "I am not optimistic at all," he said. "In fact, I just hope this doesn't make things worse. They (Israel) are giving something away, and then putting red tape all around it."

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