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West Bank-Gaza Strip Passage OK’d

October 5, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Ayman Lubedeh hasn’t been home to the Gaza Strip to see his parents and siblings in six years.

Lubedeh, 29, lives with his wife and son in the West Bank, where he works at a hospital in Ramallah. Israel has refused to let him cross its territory to get to Gaza, citing security concerns, and Lubedeh has had to make do with frequent phone calls home. His family even missed his wedding two years ago.

That will soon change after Israel and the Palestinians agreed Tuesday to establish a land link between the West Bank and Gaza.

The 28-mile route through Israel will enable Palestinians for the first time to travel relatively freely between the two areas they control, boosting prospects for eventual statehood.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators signed an agreement Tuesday on how to operate the so-called safe passage that is to open next week. Despite last-minute disputes and delays _ the route was to have opened last week _ both sides said the agreement helped improve relations after three years of deadlock.

``Viewed from the experience of these talks, I see that we can rapidly get back to business, and resume the spirit of mutual trust,″ said Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami. ``This is exactly what Chairman Arafat told me yesterday.″

The land route is part of the latest interim peace accord reached in September under which Israel must hand over 11 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian rule and release 350 security prisoners, in exchange for Palestinian security measures.

Israel’s Prisons Authority said Tuesday it was set to release the second group of prisoners _ a total of 151 inmates _ by Thursday, a day ahead of schedule.

The safe passage gives the Palestinians, especially the 1 million residents of fenced-in Gaza, greater freedom of movement.

Until now, permits to travel through Israel were difficult to obtain and were usually valid for only a few days. Large groups of people were ineligible, including young single men and those once held on suspicion of anti-Israeli activity.

Under the new arrangement, everyone is eligible in principle, though Israel reserves the right to turn down applicants. Former Palestinian security detainees, who in the past would have been unable to make the trip, can now travel twice a week in special buses, under Israeli police escort.

Palestinians will also be allowed to use their own cars for the first time.

The route, extending from the West Bank village of Tarkoumiya to Gaza’s Erez Crossing, will be open every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Palestinians will apply for permits to the Palestinian Authority, which will present the names to Israel for final approval. The permits are valid for a year, a Palestinian official said.

During the talks on the safe passage agreement, the Palestinians raised concerns that Israel would seize wanted Palestinians along the route. Israel assured the Palestinians that while it would not compromise on its sovereignty, it would not try to trap Palestinians, said Palestinian negotiator Jamil Tarifi.

But Lubedeh, who works as a hospital nurse in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he wanted to see how others fared before he applied for a travel permit.

Lubedeh last visited his parents and six brothers and sisters in Gaza in 1993 and then had difficulties getting a return permit to the West Bank.

Since then, Israel has denied him travel permits, apparently because he was detained several times during 1987-1993 uprising against Israeli occupation.

Lubedeh said he fears he could get held up in Gaza again.

``I won’t risk my job and separation from my wife and son if Israel decides not to allow me to return to the West Bank,″ Lubedeh said.

Still, his parents are excited about a reunion and are already planning to throw another wedding party for him since they missed the West Bank ceremony.

In the town of Hebron, close to Tarkoumiya, 29-year-old shoe factory worker Mohammed Sharabati said he feared the safe passage would take away his livelihood.

Sharabati said he expected Gazans to flood the West Bank looking for work. Gazans are willing to work for less than West Bankers, he said.

``I know we are one people, but when it comes to providing bread for you family that is a different story,″ Sharabati said.

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