Israel Bows to Int'l Pressure: Convoys to Begin Next Week

Israel yesterday succumbed to international pressure and informed the United States it plans to complete preparations tomorrow for operating convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to begin next week. Israel will issue a formal announcement on the matter tomorrow.

The Israeli government thereby retracted the cabinet decision last week, following the suicide bombing in Netanya, to freeze talks over operating the convoys until the Palestinian Authority takes security measures that Israel deems satisfactory.

Officials in the defense minister's office said the use of convoys is dependent on the security situation and might be put on hold in the event of a terrorist attack. That position differs from the one presented by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who said on Monday that convoys will not operate until rocket fire into Israel stops completely.

Over the past few days, Israel had indeed frozen its contacts with the PA, but held talks with the U.S. regarding the convoys and reached agreements on the means of operating them. In addition, forms were prepared for registering Palestinians who want to use the convoys.

Defense Ministry officials are hoping technical problems at the Rafah border crossing are resolved by the time the convoys start running. The problem, which has prevented transfer of data to Israel about the people crossing at Rafah, was Israel's pretext for delaying the convoy agreement.

The U.S. and other countries have been exerting heavy pressure on Israel to permit the convoys to begin running as planned, which means today. Even before Israel consented, the American Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs C. David Welch announced yesterday that bus convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would begin as scheduled. "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," Welch said in his speech at a London conference of donors to the Palestinian Authority.

The convoys were decided on in the agreement governing the crossings between Israel and the PA, which was signed last month.

Welch added that the administration's primary goal now is the PA's economic recovery.

The deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, Yossi Gal, said at the London conference that Israel sees no contradiction between Israel's security and the Palestinians' economic recovery.

Following Israel's announcement that it intends to begin operating the convoys next week, Western diplomats engaged in this matter expressed concern that the convoys would be operated in a merely token fashion, to oblige the Americans. The agreement signed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not specify the number of convoys and the routes to be inaugurated between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel has already announced it intends the convoys to serve only for the passage of Gaza Strip residents into the West Bank and back, and that they will be permitted to remain in the West Bank only 10 days.

Furthermore, Israel does not intend to open three routes, but make do with a single route between Gaza and Tarqumiya crossing in the Hebron region. That will make it difficult for Gaza residents to reach the northern West Bank because of the large number of checkpoints between Hebron and the Nablus and Jenin region. Israel has also announced that the passage into the West Bank will be forbidden to Gaza residents between the ages of 16 and 35.