'Safe passage' nudges Mideast talks

In a step forward, negotiators agree to open a route between

Talal Masri hasn't seen many of his relatives since the 1980s. He's missed three weddings and the births of countless nieces and nephews.

Mr. Masri lives only about 65 miles away as the crow flies. But until now, his Palestinian family members may as well have lived on the other side of the planet.

In the next few days, a "safe passage" will open, lifting Israeli restrictions on Palestinians traveling between here and the West Bank. Masri, a policeman for the Palestinian Authority, will soon be able to visit his family in the West Bank city of Nablus as often as he wants.

The opening of this route, as agreed on Oct. 5, marks a significant step in the road toward resuming a Middle East peace process that was all but deadlocked for the past three years. But it has not come easily. Here, as with many points yet to be reconciled, Palestinian demands for free movement have clashed with Israeli concerns about maintaining security and sovereignty over their territory. Whether Israel can live with being sandwiched between two pieces of Palestinian land - or, on the other hand, whether Palestinians can live with a state of Israel smack in the middle of their area - goes to the core of whether the two peoples will be able to carve out a livable peace.

The agreement to open a safe-passage route comes four years after the Oslo accords promised such a connection. In fact, there are plans for two routes: the one being opened soon between Gaza and Tarkumiya, near the southern West Bank town of Hebron, and the other between Gaza and the northern West Bank, which has not been finalized yet.

Israelis and Palestinians this week also opened final-status negotiations aimed at solving the six most complicated issues of the century-old conflict, including the future of Jerusalem and several million Palestinian refugees.

But like those talks, many questions loom over the future of the safe-passage routes. Palestinians see them as the key to uniting their two disjointed pieces of autonomous territory in ways that could free work and leisure activity to proceed as though it were occurring in one country. Israelis see them as two roads cutting across the heartland of their country, holding the potential to be exploited by Palestinians seeking to launch terror attacks inside Israel.

Possibilities for the long term include proposals to build an elevated highway, nonstop train, or tunnel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip to facilitate travel and alleviate security concerns. But with those plans still several years into the future, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have had to hash out an elaborate system of checks and security clearances for travelers on the routes. Palestinians with permission to enter Israel will be given magnetic cards to speed passage through checkpoints. Palestinians without such consent will be allowed to travel the routes on special buses escorted by convoys of Israel's border police, a paramilitary unit.

What Palestinians think

The fact that some sort of Israeli approval system still exists was already eliciting criticism from Palestinians who, though enthusiastic about new access to friends and family on the other side, expected the safe passage to be open to all.

"All of us here have been missing our families in the West Bank," says Masri, the policeman. "The first thing I'm going to do is visit my family in Nablus. We're one people, like any other country, so there should be no barriers between us. I hope in the future there will be no permits or cards needed so that it's like one piece of land, because if not, I'll always feel like I'm under the thumb of Israeli policy."

Israeli officials say that over time, they do expect to allow more people and cars to use the routes without much hindrance from Israel. In theory, says an aide close to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, even Palestinians in militant fundamentalist groups such as Hamas are allowed to use the routes to travel between the autonomous Palestinian territories.

But Israeli moves toward allowing freer access, the official warns, will be contingent on whether Palestinians opposed to the peace process try to use the routes to infiltrate Israel and commit violence.

"This is a relatively long road which goes under the full sovereignty of the state of Israel, and we will not allow any misuse of it. And if we find it causes security problems, we will have to reexamine it," says Danny Yatom, Mr. Barak's chief of staff. "We will not abuse the security of our citizens along this road just to fulfill our commitments, but we do have a commitment to the Palestinians."

Thwarting terrorism

Palestinian officials say they will do everything in their power to make sure the routes are not used for terrorism, because the end result would harm not just Israelis but Palestinians as well.

"This opening is a big political achievement for us," says Mohammed Dahlan, the chief of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip. "If we know someone who is planning an explosion, of course we will prevent him from doing it because that would hurt the Palestinian national interest and cause Israel to close down the routes."

Still, as is often the case in the peace process, the two sides are hearing very different things in the same news update. Israelis may see the opening of the safe passage as a risky but necessary move to fulfill their promise to loosen control over Palestinian travel, but Palestinians see it as one highway closer to the establishment of an independent state.

Even hard-line Islamic critics of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat acknowledge it is a coup for him and say they'll use the roads if they can be sure the Israelis won't arrest them en route.

"Gaza is a big prison of 1 million people, and 70 percent of them are not allowed to leave it," says Ghazi Hamad, a former Hamas member who founded the Islamic Salvation Party and edits the pro-Hamas Al-Risale newspaper.

"This will affect commercial relations," he adds. "Without this connection between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there is no Palestinian state."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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