Israel Agrees to Complete Preparations for Bus Convoys

Convoys between Gaza , West Bank to start next week; convoy deal part of agreement Israel, PA signed in Nov.

Succumbing to international pressure, Israel informed the United States on Wednesday that it plans to complete preparations Thursday for operating bus convoys between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which will start next week. Israel will issue an official statement on the matter on Thursday.

Wednesday's decision reverses a cabinet decision made after last week's suicide bombing in Netanya to freeze talks on convoys until the Palestinian Authority takes significant measures to improve security.

Sources in the Defense Ministry said that the convoys could be delayed if a terror attack is carried out.

Wednesday's decision differs from the one presented by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz on Tuesday, according to which the convoys would not run until militants cease firing Qassam rockets at Israel.

In recent days Israel froze contact with the PA, but held talks with the U.S. regarding the convoys, reaching an agreement on them.

The bus convoy deal was part of the agreement Israel and the PA signed in November.

Earlier Wednesday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided to delay the start of the bus convoys, scheduled for Thursday, until next week, and would on Thursday convene security chiefs to designate which Palestinians could use them.

"The criteria could be according to age, or according to past affiliation with terrorist groups," a source in Jerusalem said, adding that under the deal, Israel had the right to vet and veto certain Palestinians' use of the convoys.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat deplored the postponement. "Israel will have its screening and security, so I don't see any reason whatsoever to delay the operation of these convoys," he said.

U.S. embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle had no immediate comment on Mofaz's decision but said Washington wanted to see the convoys up and running.

"We would have liked to have seen everything begin at the target date, but if that does not happen, we will focus on doing everything possible to get it to happen as soon as possible," he said.

American pressure on Israel to implement an agreement allowing bus convoys to travel between Gaza and the West Bank had continued until the last minute.

David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, announced on Wednesday in a speech to a conference of donors to the Palestinian Authority that bus convoy traffic between Gaza and the West Bank will begin on Thursday as planned.

"We fully expect Israel and the Palestinians to implement all aspects of the movement agreement on schedule and we will help them to do so," an aide quoted Welch as saying. He added that truck traffic along this route, another point in the agreement, will begin on January 15.

"Israel has no intention of allowing passage to Palestinian convoys from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank... while the PA is not acting against Qassam rocket fire," Halutz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

A Western diplomatic source said the suspension of the Gaza-West Bank bus convoys is a violation of Israel's agreement with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Diplomats at the London conference expressed hope Israel would understand the strategic ramifications of reneging on explicit obligations it had made to the U.S. administration at this critical time.

During a Friday afternoon briefing for representatives of the international community in Tel Aviv, Brigadier-General Eitan Dangot, who is IDF liaison to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, and Major General Yossi Mishlav, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, had said that anyway there was no chance that the convoys could begin operating on December 15, since Israel needed at least one week to make the necessary preparations.

Mishlav and Dangot also argued that the Palestinians are not abiding by the terms of the Rafah crossing agreement, warning that Israel will significantly intensify security checks at the Erez and Karni crossings unless the Palestinians begin honoring their obligations by Sunday.

At a meeting held by Quartet representatives in Jerusalem on Friday morning, American officials made clear that the Palestinians are honoring their end of the Rafah deal, and that the disagreements stem from technological matters that the Israelis raised as part of new demands.

"Our primary goal at the moment is economic recovery for the Palestinians," Welch said. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Saturday said that Israel has no plans to put Palestinians under an "economic siege."

Deputy Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Yossi Gal, added on Thursday at the conference that in Israel's eyes, there isn't a contradiction between Israeli security and Palestinian economic recovery.