The Safe Passage: The History of a Farce

The main components characterizing Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians - the evasiveness, the lack of a modicum of goodwill and the failure to honor agreements - can be found in failed 12-year-old promise to open a "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Even the writers of the satirical program "Eretz Nehederet" could not have succeeded in composing such a farce. Anyone interested in understanding the essence of our relationship with the Palestinians is invited to read what was written in the newspapers during the past 12 years about "the safe passage" Israel promised to open in 1993 between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Anyone reviewing these press accounts will discover the main components characterizing Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians - the evasiveness, the lack of a modicum of goodwill and the failure to honor agreements.

In the Haaretz archives, the curious reader can find 576 news items recounting the evolution of this grotesque saga, the final chapter of which - as of now - was written at the end of the week: "Israel cuts off talks with the Palestinians on the operation of buses between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in accordance with a decision made by the security-diplomatic cabinet in the wake of the terror attack in Netanya."

Between this headline and the fearsome main headline in Yedioth Ahronoth three weeks ago ("Hundreds of Palestinians will travel between Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat"), and between the headline in Haaretz on August 11, 1994 ("Rabin: Israel is already prepared to open the safe passage next week"), there have been hundreds of news items. They report about thousands of hours of talks, dozens of committees and conferences, an endless number of meetings, declarations and signed agreements dealing with the passage between the two parts of the Palestinian Authority, which many in Israel have regarded as almost a state for some time.

What value do all of these talks and agreements have - whose every detail was sweated over by dozens of statesmen, diplomats, experts and army officers, and with American, Egyptian and European involvement - if the result is a "safe passage" that has barely operated for one year between 1993, the year of Oslo, and 2005, the year of disengagement? The next time any agreement is signed between Israel and the Palestinians, it would be best to recall the sealed fate of this "safe passage."

This entails the lives and basic welfare of human beings. Students who are prevented from studying, parents who are torn from their children for long years, sick people who are unable to receive medical treatment, an economy that cannot be established. It also entails a bitter mockery of international promises, signed commitments and what we call the "diplomatic [medini] process."

What haven't we promised? What haven't we "examined"? Railroads and sunken highways, elevated roads and tunnels, suspended bridges and even a monorail on columns between Gaza and Hebron. What is the result? Even the 10 students from Gaza who study physical therapy at Bethlehem University could not attend classes last week, as Amira Hass reported in Haaretz - and this was before the terror attack in Netanya. The 47 kilometers separating Erez and the Tarkumiya checkpoint continue to be the longest 47 kilometers in the world, spanning the hills of darkness.

Here is a short recap of the grotesque, for fans of this genre: Annex I of the "Interim Agreement" signed in 1995 stipulates: "In order to maintain the territorial integrity of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, and to promote their economic growth and the demographic and geographical links between them, both sides shall implement the provisions of this Annex, while respecting and preserving without obstacles, normal and smooth movement of people, vehicles, and goods ... between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

Thus, the principle formulated two years earlier in the "Declaration of Principles" was expressed. In May 1994, a special unit of the Border Police was already created to supervise the traffic in the safe passage; in April 1995, the last "stumbling block" was removed when Israel's position was accepted on the issue of armed policemen in the passage; in 1996, an editorial in Haaretz called for "lifting the unnecessary delay;" in 1997, the foreign minister, David Levy, reported "progress in talks with Arafat on the safe passage;" in 1998, the candidate for chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, said he had heard "strange ideas" about opening the passage from prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; in October 1999, the passage was opened on Road 35. Israel announced that a quarter of the cars would not be allowed to pass because of "safety defects;" and, during the same year, Austria and Germany offered to finance an elevated highway. Prime minister Ehud Barak was in favor; in 2000, an interministerial committee submitted its recommendations to Barak: not an elevated highway, but a sunken one.

About a year later, the passage was closed when the intifada erupted. About half of those seeking to travel via the passage were refused permission, even when it was "open."

In 2001, a discussion was held in the office of the transportation minister, Ephraim Sneh: a railway between Gaza and Tul Karm along the route laid by the Turks. Shimon Peres was reportedly an enthusiastic backer of this idea, as was the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who had long supported it.

During the four years that have since passed, almost no Palestinian has crossed, of course - not on a sunken road and not on an elevated bridge, not even on foot. What was required? A small escort unit and goodwill.

The latest agreement, so far, was signed about three weeks ago. Condoleezza Rice announced that an agreement had been reached at the end of a night of talks and that, according to this accord, the sage passage between the West Bank and Gaza would begin to operate with "convoys of buses" on December 15. "This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives", the secretary of state festively declared.

December 15 comes this week and no bus will pass. A single terrorist and this agreement also went up in smoke, like those that came before it. The diplomats and the generals are already sweating over the next agreement. For Alia Siksik, who wanted to travel to Ramallah from Gaza five years ago to help nurse her dying mother and was refused permission, it will be of no use - her mother died long ago.