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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 27, 2005

Q. ...secure transportation link between Gaza and the West Bank?

Q. Ramifications of destroying the settlers' houses in Gaza?

Q. The attempt to coordinate the Israeli disengagement with the Palestinians has reportedly led to the reemergence of a Palestinian demand for a secure transportation link between Gaza and the West Bank. What is the backdrop to this demand, and where is it heading?

A. The immediate reason the "safe passage" demand has resurfaced is the Palestinians' perceived need to "create facts" that ensure that the Gaza withdrawal is linked to an eventual major West Bank withdrawal as well, and does not isolate the Gaza Strip as a separate, semi-independent (in the best case) Palestinian entity. The demand itself goes back to the earliest attempts to discuss a two-state solution that began informally some 15 years ago and were formalized when the Oslo process began in 1993.

The rationale for a secure link is obvious: under the best of circumstances, a Palestinian state will have the distinct disadvantage of being split between two land masses, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the former 16 times the size of the latter. Earlier states in this situation, such as Pakistan prior to the secession of Bangladesh, labored under serious constraints and ultimately failed. The Palestinians are potentially better off, insofar as the area of Israel separating the two entities is only about 42 km. wide, hence is "bridgeable".

The early years of the Oslo process produced a variety of schemes for building, for exclusive Palestinian use, a superhighway on stilts running from west to east or a road sunken below ground level that would not impede Israeli passage from north to south. The structure would comprise a railway line, gas and possibly water pipelines and electric lines. The European Union and Japan both evinced a readiness to build the highway, at a cost estimated at the time at around $500 million.

Discussion of the exclusive highway was postponed to final status talks and never took place in detail. Meanwhile, under interim Oslo agreements Israel agreed to designate specific existing roads linking Gaza and the West Bank for the passage of Palestinian convoys that would be guarded and secured by Israeli forces ("safe passage"). Due to Israeli security concerns that stemmed from Palestinian terrorist attacks this project had limited success, and in effect never really worked. It was suspended completely with the outbreak of the intifada in October 2000. Since then, Palestinians have only been able to travel between Gaza and the West Bank using individual permits issued by Israel, usually for Palestinian officials. In parallel, a limited number of Palestinian laborers and purchasing agents have been allowed to visit Israel on a daily basis.

The efforts of Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn to facilitate economic aspects of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza now include the safe passage issue. Israel has suggested a train link that would partially exploit existing Israeli infrastructure and take around three years to plan and build. Wolfensohn has reportedly embraced the sunken road idea, and says it could be built for the surprisingly low figure of around $130 million, but his Israeli interlocutors have security reservations. Meanwhile the purchase of a fleet of 30 trucks, dedicated to carrying goods back and forth between the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli supervision, is being discussed. Israel's first demand is that, after disengagement, the Palestinians prove their ability to maintain peace and quiet in Gaza. Israel also refuses to discuss these options under the headline of "safe passage", lest this be interpreted by Palestinians as a revival of the long defunct Oslo talks.

In the event, the Palestinians are probably better off discussing the transportation link as a separate issue, not related to Oslo. Their problem in including it in the Oslo talks is that, over the years, the concept they developed of a two-state solution was based on Israeli withdrawal to the green line, i.e., on the pre-1967 borders. But prior to 1967 there was no safe transportation route linking Gaza and the West Bank across Israel. The moment the Palestinians raised this demand in final status talks, Israel naturally considered this an additional Israeli concession of a semi-territorial nature, and viewed it as at least partial Israeli "payment" for the settlement blocs it sought to annex in the West Bank.

Israel, for its part, should welcome the idea of a sunken road or road-on-stilts that links Gaza and the West Bank and, under conditions of peace, enjoys ex-territorial status. Such a road would help ensure the survival and prosperity of a Palestinian state, which are preconditions for Israel's survival as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel should be interested in launching such a project now, even if it takes years to complete. By the by, the project would draw investment funds to Israel and Palestine and provide much-needed jobs.

But for this to happen, PM Sharon would have to accept, indeed welcome, the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.


Q. Israel and the Palestinians have reportedly agreed on a formula for destroying the settlers' houses in Gaza. What are the ramifications?

A. The formula, suggested by Israeli Minister of Justice Tzippi Livni and reportedly accepted by both PM Sharon and President Abbas, is for Israel to destroy the houses while the Palestinians remove the rubble and use it for building infrastructure projects, such as a port for Gaza. In this way, destroying the houses will not cause any appreciable delay in Israel's withdrawal, while removal of the remains of the destroyed homes will also provide immediate employment for several thousand Palestinians.

The cost of removing the rubble, some $50 million, will probably fall on Israel, unless an international donor can be found. This is not likely, insofar as the settlement houses are considered illegal under international law and no state donor or international agency is likely to agree to foot the bill of removing them, even if the Palestinians do the job.

The two sides' agreement also reflects a rare shared interest in the destruction of the settlement houses in Gaza. Where some 7,000 settlers lived in cottages and villas, the Palestinians want to build high rise apartment dwellings for hundreds of thousands of Gazans. Hopefully this will include refugees from the camps, thereby finally setting a precedent of rehabilitating Palestinian refugees without waiting for a political solution. Israel's Palestinian interlocutors have also expressed the fear that settlement housing left by Israel abandoned and undestroyed would be looted and pillaged by angry Palestinians, and/or be taken over by Palestinian gangs, thereby projecting a negative image to the world regarding the Palestinian Authority's ability to deal with disengagement.

The Sharon government, for its part, originally broached the idea of destroying the houses as a reply to angry settler accusations that Palestinian terrorists would take over the dwellings. Destroying the houses (and replacing them with high rises) also removes a set of symbols that would be used in future by the displaced settlers to incite irredentist sentiment among the Israeli right.

Still left to be agreed upon is the fate of the Gaza settlers' hothouse agricultural infrastructure. Can Wolfensohn find a way for an active organic vegetable and exotic flower industry to be transferred in working condition to Palestinians capable of managing it, then ensuring that their products reach export markets in Europe? The Israeli farmers are receiving Israel government compensation adequate for starting over inside Israel. Since transporting the hothouses and their contents into Israel is complicated, they are prepared to leave behind the infrastructure and even the plants themselves.

But the 4,000 or so Palestinians they currently employ in the hothouses will be out of work come August 15 unless an alternative industry can be established for them. And for each additional unemployed Palestinian, figure a large family of dependents as well as three or four additional families that are currently at least partially dependent on what that Palestinian purchases with his income.