Vital for peace

Safe passage is the name that was given in the Oslo Accords to the way the West Bank is supposed to be connected to the Gaza Strip. The accords stressed the need to maintain the integrity and continuity of the Palestinian territories. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are, by any standards, geographically very small and hence also comprise a small market. Should the two be disunited it would thus further shrink a Palestinian market and consequently strongly affect the potential for economic growth and recovery.

By the same token, the Gaza Strip is not on its own economically viable. It needs to be part of a Palestinian economy encompassing the West Bank in order to survive. The same, maybe to a lesser extent, can be said for the West Bank. In other words, the economic viability of a future Palestinian state depends on the economic integrity of the parts of this state, i.e. the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The premise on which the peace process has been based is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is also an integral part of what has become known as Bush’s vision for the future of the Middle East, i.e., two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side. This political vision is one of the fundamental bases for the implementation of a future solution based on international legality that calls for Palestinian self determination in an independent state in the territories occupied in the 1967 war.

For that reason the Oslo agreements between Israel and Palestine specified specific routes devoted to the free movement of people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza. But Israel has instead been restricting the movement between the two parts of this one entity for different reasons. One is as a punitive measure, especially as it debilitates the economy. The second is political, with the aim of pre-empting the only way to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, namely the establishment of a Palestinian state. This particular Israeli right wing government is interested in annexing most of the Palestinian territories to Israel for expansion purposes.

Recent discussions and analysis over the unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip have again focused attention on the connection between the West Bank and Gaza. If Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip but maintains the current restrictions on the movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza as well as on the movement between Gaza and the outside world in general, then the withdrawal will only bring catastrophic consequences for the Palestinians.

According to published World Bank records and statements by James Wolfensohn before he left the Bank, an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without facilitating the movement of goods and people will lead simply to further economic and consequently social deterioration. That’s why most of the current coordination, negotiation and discussion over the implementation of this unilateral plan is concentrating on the safe passage issue; in other words, on the regime that governs movement to and from the Gaza Strip, especially to and from the West Bank.

As a unilateral imposition, the disengagement plan is tailored to the needs of the occupation and Israel has shown no intention of changing the current regime governing the movement of persons and goods to and from Gaza. But the international community has been actively engaged on this issue and has already introduced into the discussion two concrete proposals that will at the same time ensure Israeli security and Palestinian movement. One is a newly introduced concept called "sunken roads"; open-tunnel roads dug five meters below the surface with concrete walls that will be used for traffic and possibly a railway and pipelines for water and electricity. Such construction should allow for the movement of Palestinians and the same time cause no danger to Israeli security.

In the meantime–such roads could take a year -and-a-half to construct-the second idea is to cater for immediate needs by utilizing new technology that scans an entire cargo without human inspection, thereby allowing Israel to replace the back-to-back system to a more efficient system. Whatever is decided upon, the integrity of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one territory, which can be facilitated only by ensuring the free movement of goods and people between the two, is vital for the future economic prospects of a Palestinian state and therefore vital for the prospects of peace.