Mofaz Decides Not to Allow Gaza-West Bank Bus Convoys Next Week

Israel decides to renew contacts with PA severed following Netanya terror bombing that killed five people.

Despite intense American pressure, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday evening decided not to allow the passage of Palestinian bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank next week.

Following a assessment of the current security situation held Thursday in Mofaz's bureau, it was decided Israel would not allow the convoyes to set out at this time.

The decision will be re-evaluated next week.

Nevertheless, it was decided to renew contacts with the Palestinian Authority that were severed following the suicide terror bombing in Netanya earlier in the month that killed five Israelis.

Mofaz's bureau rejected claims that the ministry reneged on an earlier decision to allow the convoys next week.

"We said the defense minister would make a decision regarding the expected passage of the convoys and that is, in fact, what we did. The minister decided, at this time, not to allow the convoys to go into operation," Mofaz's bureau said.

Meanwhile, the defense establishment continues to make preparations for the Palestinian convoys between Gaza and the West Bank. The buses carrying Gaza residents to in the West Bank will be escorted by Israeli security personnel and will run along predetermined routes.

The convoys are unlike the older "safe passage" which allowed Palestinians to travel freely on Israeli roads between Gaza and the West Bank.

Boim: Convoy deal was a mistakeEarlier on Thursday, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim told Israel Radio that it was a mistake to have signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority to enable bus convoys to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Israel instead should have resisted American pressure to reach the deal, Boim continued, and explained to the Americans that they should actually be pressuring the PA, who have done nothing to combat terrorism.

Boim's comments come on the day that, according to the agreement signed in November, the bus convoys were supposed to begin. Due to international pressure that continued up until the last minute, Israel announced on Wednesday it plans to complete preparations on Friday for operating the convoys.

Following this announcement, Western diplomats expressed concern that the convoys would be operated in a merely token fashion, to oblige the Americans.

The Israeli government thereby retracted its cabinet decision last week to freeze talks over operating the convoys until the Palestinian Authority takes security measures that Israel deems satisfactory. The December 5 suicide bombing in Netanya prompted the cabinet decision.

Convoys depend on security situation Officials in the defense minister's office said that in any case, 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 were 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 Thursday. Even before Israel consented, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs C. David Welch announced on Wednesday 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.

Restricted terms of passageThe 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.