All aboard for the Gaza express

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Israel and the Palestinians have always agreed that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are a single territorial area. This was stated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 1993: "The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, whose integrity will be preserved during the interim period."

The unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza calls into question whether or not this territorial integrity can be preserved. The "safe passage" arrangement that was supposed to connect the two territories was never fully practiced. In final status talks a land link between Gaza and the West Bank was discussed within the framework of territorial exchanges. Yet Israel has always been reluctant to enable a sovereign Palestinian route that would essentially cut Israel in half.

The nature of the permanent passage between the two areas will remain a subject for negotiations within final status talks, whenever they may commence. Meanwhile, there is a pressing need to find immediate and workable solutions for maintaining a link between the two territories in order to enable economic growth and development of the Palestinian economy. The solutions found for the immediate future may not be the same ones to come out of negotiations. Because the chances for successful negotiations on this issue now are quite slim, the sides should agree to arrangements that can be implemented rapidly at minimal cost.

There are a number of issues of relevance in discussing the possibilities for the passage.

First, the sovereign status of the passage is a permanent status issue and therefore cannot be dealt with properly within the limitations of the immediate need to ensure the connectivity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Sovereignty and rights for the passage must be dealt with in the framework of future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Second, any Gaza-West Bank passage compromises the separation barrier being constructed around the West Bank and surrounding Gaza. In view of general Israeli security concerns, it is clear that Israel will not agree to any kind of arrangement that allows Palestinians to enter Israel and wander freely from the passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Therefore a road link, either on a dedicated road or using existing roads, will not be considered in the near future.

Third, all new proposed routes that cut through Israel will take a long period to implement in order to overcome the many legal hurdles of Israeli zoning restrictions, political considerations, and the objections of environmentalists (beyond any other objections raised by the security services).

Finally, the most immediate need for the passage is economic; it must provide rapid solutions for the unimpeded movement of goods between the two territories. The movement of people and vehicles is more complex due to security and political issues; more time is needed to find suitable solutions agreeable to all parties.

The best immediate solution is construction of a rail link of about 1.5 kilometers between Erez (at the northern border of the Gaza Strip with Israel) and Zikim, which links Gaza to the Israeli rail system. A security checking facility able to scan containers would be set up at Erez. Containers would be sealed and loaded onto the trains for shipment. Once on the Israeli system, goods could travel to Ashdod port, Ben Gurion airport, and other points in Israel. With minor infrastructure developments, movement to West Bank points could easily be developed, including a linkage to Tulkarem. The most logical connection would be an additional rail link from Kiryat Gat to Tarqumieh in the southern West Bank, a distance of about 25 kilometers. This is the cheapest and fastest way of ensuring the movement of goods between the West Bank and Gaza.

In the future it is possible to discuss how the train link could be used to transport vehicles and people between the West Bank and Gaza. Once the rail link connections are in place, dedicated trains could be placed on the rails that would transport directly between Gaza and the West Bank, without any stops in between.

A number of additional options for the mid and longer term could be discussed in the future:

  • A "depressed" or sunken road, five-ten meters deep, 100 meters wide, and uncovered, is estimated to take a minimum of three years to complete at a cost of $150 million. The idea is supported by the security establishment in Israel, but strongly opposed by the environmentalists.
  • An "elevated road" would take 5-6 years to complete at a cost of $1,250 million. It is supported by the politicians in Israel, rejected by Israeli security, and opposed by the environmentalists. It involves engineering and operational difficulties.
  • A tunnel would take 6-7 years to complete at a cost of $1,250 million. The idea is supported by Israeli and Palestinian politicians, not supported by Israeli security, and supported by the environmentalists. It also involves engineering and operational difficulties.
  • A surface road would take 1-2 years at a cost of $100 million. It is rejected by Israeli politicians, rejected by Israeli security, and not supported by the environmentalists. This option is most favored by the Palestinians.
  • Any possible combination of these options requires further study and investigation.

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