Israel Halts Talks on Bus Convoys From Gaza to West Bank

The security-political cabinet has decided to suspend talks with the Palestinian Authority on operating bus convoys between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, despite an agreement made last month in talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to the agreement, the bus convoys were slated to start operating next Thursday, and truck convoys were to begin in mid-January. The Prime Minister's Office said it notified the United States of its decision to suspend talks on Tuesday, shortly after the senior ministers approved the move, which had been recommended by security officials in the wake of Monday's terror attack in Netanya.

Meanwhile, C. David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is due to arrive in Israel today to discuss issues including the convoys, the Karni crossing and the Gaza airport.

In the cabinet decision, the ministers said convoy talks would be renewed only after the PA fulfilled its obligation to act against terrorists.

A security official yesterday linked the suspension of the convoy talks to a disagreement over the supervision of the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. Israel says the Palestinians are not allowing the border to be monitored effectively, which enables hostile elements to enter Gaza. Officials said that as long as Israel is unable to monitor entry into the Gaza Strip, it cannot allow Palestinians to go through Israel to get from Gaza to the West Bank.

Security officials confirmed yesterday that the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yosef Mishlav, had been ordered to cancel meetings scheduled with Palestinian officials in an effort to resolve the controversial issues related to the convoys. Negotiations held in the last few weeks between the Israeli team, headed by Mishlav, and the Palestinian team, headed by PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan, have revealed gaps between the two sides on a number of issues.

For instance, the Palestinians want all those who have PA identity cards to be allowed to cross between Gaza and the West Bank, but Israel wants only Gaza residents to be allowed to enter the West Bank, and says they should be allowed to stay there no more than 10 days. In addition, the Palestinians oppose the Israeli demand that Palestinian men between 16 and 35 not be allowed to cross from one area to another.

The American working paper presented to both sides proposes that the West Bank and Gaza be connected via five convoys per day, each of which would consist of five buses that would transport a total of 1,800 passengers a day. Israel proposes setting the limit at one five-bus convoy a day, transporting no more than 250 passengers a day between the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border and the Tarkomia checkpoint near the West Bank city of Hebron. The United States recommends that the buses go from the Gaza Strip to stops in the central and northern West Bank, since the checkpoints make it difficult to get from the Hebron area to the rest of the West Bank.

Western diplomats said yesterday that participants at next week's London conference on the rehabilitation of Gaza in the wake of Israel's withdrawal are likely to criticize Israel for failing to implement the convoy agreement. The Quartet's Mideast envoy, James Wolfensohn, who spent a long time mediating the deal, has said that Israel cannot be allowed to close the Gaza border crossings in reaction to terror attacks unconnected to the Gaza Strip.