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"Safe Passage"

With the long-delayed opening of the so-called safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank on October 25, Israel took yet another step, with the support of the international community, on the road to "separation". A closer look at how the safe passage operates, however, demonstrates that the creeping separation being established by Israel under Oslo has more to do with Israeli control and the logic of apartheid than with the emergence of an independent sovereign Palestinian state.

In practice, the 44 km southern route between Erez checkpoint in Gaza and the West Bank village of Tarkumiyeh near Hebron, is neither safe nor free. While Palestinians wishing to use the passage apply to and receive permits from the Palestinian Authority, Israel retains full control over the approval process. As of the first week in November, some 40% of the safe passage requests had been rejected (Ha'aretz, 7/11/99). The rate of approval appeared to improve somewhat by the end of the month. According to the Palestinian Human Rights Centre (PCHR) in Gaza, the total number of applications submitted since the date of the passage's opening on 25 October 1999, until the end of November 1999 reached about 18,000. Israel approved 15,000 or about 83% including 1,300, which were approved with accompaniment (7%) and rejected 2,900 (16%), 300 applications have not been answered (1.6%). (The Unsafe Road: A Special Report on the Safe Passage, 8/12/99 by PCHR.) A new biometric ID system (fingerprint and iris identification) is scheduled to be introduced in 2000.

The movement of Palestinians who receive permits is also restricted by Israeli security procedures and the limited operational time of the passage which is only open 10 hours each day. Ninety minutes before the closure of the passage, private vehicles, taxis and buses are not permitted to use the route. Under the agreement, the passage is also scheduled to close on Israeli Remembrance Day, Independence Day and Yom Kippur, with Israel and the PA to determine special procedures for the operation of the passage on the other days of special significance - i.e. reduced activity on Israeli holidays and expanded activity on Muslim holidays. Security at the Erez checkpoint takes approximately 2 to 3 hours. According to the Gaza UNRWA Field Office, the daily ceiling is 1,000 persons transported by buses in addition to 100 private vehicles with passengers.

Under the Safe Passage Protocol, Israel also retains the right to stop, detain, and arrest Palestinians using the passage. On the day the passage opened, five persons were arrested 1999 at Erez checkpoint before commencing their journey, in spite of having the required documentation. Permits for use of the safe passage cost NIS 30 and are valid for one year. Permits for private vehicles are valid for three months. Permit holders must also specify the dates on which they wish to travel. Persons deemed to be security risks must apply for special permits and are restricted travel twice a week on special buses. The PCHR report also notes that prior to the military closure, implemented in 1993, a trip between Gaza and Ramallah took between 75-90 minutes. Under the safe passage arrangements, the same trip now takes 5 hours or 10 hours return.

What the so-called safe passage thus delivers is a kind of a "pass" system based on the logic of apartheid. Israeli officials have also floated the idea of separating the West Bank from Israel by a security fence at a cost of $1 million per kilometre, not unlike the fence around Gaza, with special arrangements for Jerusalem. The continued construction of an Erez style checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem appears to fall within the parameters of this logic. Under the plan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (the latter divided into a set of Jewish and Palestinian enclaves) will be linked by 15 to 18 "safe" passages. On the one hand, Palestinian movement is regulated, limited, and controlled. On the other hand, the movement of Israeli Jews is free and unlimited, facilitated by the construction of hundreds of kilometres of bypass roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Israel Begins to Implement New Procedures at Bethlehem Checkpoint

Construction at the new Erez-style checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem continued at pace in the last months of 1999. Israel has resurfaced and relighted the road from the Gilo intersection up to Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. Visitors to Bethlehem for the holidays were greeted with attractive, new "toll booths", replacing the old military buildings. Meanwhile, Palestinians traveling to Jerusalem have been forced over the holidays to use the new 650 meter footpath, which takes them to a separate checkpoint, hidden from the main road.