By Plane, Train, or Car, Palestinians Still Stuck At Israel's Borders

Several Palestinian college students who live in the Gaza Strip sit around a table telling tales of how they illegally sneak across Israel to get to their university in the West Bank, another Palestinian-controlled area.

"We hide in the produce trucks," says one, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I've put on a kippa like a religious Jew and said 'Shalom, Shalom,' and they just wave me through," says another.

With Israelis and Palestinians heading back to the negotiating table after more than six months of stagnated talks, travel restrictions on Palestinians dominate the formidable agenda.

The students, unable to reach their classes due to Israel's partial closure of the West Bank and Gaza, are an example of the lack of a "safe passage" between the two territories that was supposed to be created under the 1995 Israel-PLO peace accords.

Also topping the list is the opening of an airport in Gaza. The runways for the Dahaniya airfield in the northern end of Gaza are already completed, and Palestinians say their planes are ready to fly. But Israel, which retains the right to overall security for the airport, has thus far not allowed it to operate.

Both issues - safe passage and the airport - are characteristic of why Israeli and Palestinian interests so often clash.

To Israel, unrestrained Palestinian travel between the West Bank and Gaza would leave Israelis prone to attacks like the deadly suicide bombings in March that triggered the closure in the first place. To Palestinians, little freedom of movement means that some cannot visit family members, conduct legitimate business in other areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), or even get to school.

Similarly, Israel says its security concerns about the airport, including necessary aviation regulations, have not been met. Concerns include the prospect that the airport would be an easy channel for weapons to be brought into Gaza, or that the PA would allow planes from nations hostile to the Jewish state to land on Israel's doorstep.

For Palestinians, the airport is another symbol of their right to travel. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat himself complained of being humiliated when his helicopter, en route from Gaza to the West Bank, recently had to circle Tel Aviv for 40 minutes while awaiting Israeli approval to land. Palestinians have long complained of travel hassles in getting through Israeli airports and borders.

But the safe-passage problem could have some creative solutions. According to the Oslo II agreements signed last year in Washington, Palestinians who are denied entry into Israel will be allowed to travel between the West Bank and Gaza via shuttle buses. Another option is also being considered: a rail link between the West Bank and Gaza, one that wouldn't allow passengers to get off in Israel proper along the way.

The airport raises a host of other problems. Israelis close to the issue say that in addition to obvious security concerns, Palestinians haven't shown they can meet international standards, air-quality control laws, or first-aid requirements. Israel says it wants to be sure of the safety of planes flying over its territory.

Suggestions that the airport is anything but safe is "nonsense," says the head of the Palestinian Aviation Authority, Brig. Gen. Fayez Zaidan. "All of our flights will be in accordance with international standards," says General Zaidan, who trained as a pilot in Phoenix, Ariz., and later ran Maldives Airways.

"We understand [Israel's] security needs," Zaidan says. "We have no objection to Israeli checks on passports and luggage. We are not going to [secretly] let 4 million Palestinians return through this airport," he adds, referring to Israeli concerns that refugees will be given unchecked access.

Israeli negotiators say that while the operation of the airport is on the short list for the talks, their first priority is watching over the airspace the two peoples share. Of Israel's security demands, Shlomo Dror, an Israeli official says, "We are not going to allow [Palestinians] to have an open line with Arab states that don't have diplomatic relations with Israel. When anything enters [Israeli] airspace, it's our responsibility."

Israeli sources on the negotiating team say the airplane dispute comes down to a lack of cooperation. They complain that the Palestinians acted unilaterally and did not bother to set up a protocol with them. No coordination, they say, means a no-go.

But Palestinians say they had to get on with the project, which is being financed with Egyptian loans. The Palestinian fleet would begin with two Fokker 50s donated by the Netherlands and fly to such places as Cairo, Cyprus, and Amman, Jordan.

"If I were always waiting for Israel's green light to construct this airport, I would right now just be starting," Zaidan says. "Nothing would ever get done."

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