Israel Begins Testing New West Bank Crossing Near Qalqilyah

IDF: Purpose is to ease passage, boost security along barrier; Erekat: Crossing points between countries should be mutual.

Israel has begun testing a major crossing on the West Bank separation fence at Qalqilyah.

Israel allowed hundreds of Palestinian workers to cross from the West Bank in the first two days of testing the crossing, which itself abuts the Green Line 1967 boundary with Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces said the new Qalqilyah crossing was aimed at easing passage while boosting security along the fence, which it says keeps suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities.

The high-tech terminal, in the shadow of a concrete watchtower and surrounded by razor wire fencing and blocks, has the physical trappings of a modern frontier post.

"This has become like the bridge to Jordan, like an international border," said Hisham Abu Radi, a Palestinian farm labourer who spent hours waiting to cross on Tuesday before turning back.

The checkpoint at the outskirts of the citrus farming town of Qalqilyah is part of a network of crossings Israel is erecting along the route of the separation barrier.

Past metal turnstiles that soldiers operate by remote control, guards behind fortified glass check identity cards and direct Palestinians through metal detectors and security checks.

The IDF did not say when the Qalqilyah crossing, which is not inside the West Bank, would formally open.

"The previous crossing was old and archaic," an IDF spokesperson said. "This is a lot more efficient and it is supposed to be smoother. All the security measures are there to make sure terrorists don't get into Israel."

Israel has said it is building dozens of checkpoints - from simple gates through which farmers can access their land to massive passenger and cargo terminals - along its barrier. It hopes to have them all operational by early 2006.

"I believe crossing points between countries should be mutual. But Israel is in charge of their side and our side," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

"It is not an equal situation. I am afraid that these crossing points that Israel is imposing are having to do with the wall and creating facts on the ground."

Crossings similar to the one at Qalqilyah have opened near the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Jenin, and should open shortly near Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian politics.

"We hope this will be good for everyone," said tile trader Mohammed Abu Nidal, crossing for a second day at Qalqilyah. "But it would be better without a crossing at all. We could get in and finish our work faster."