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Israelis Open Safe Passage Route

October 25, 1999

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israel today opened a land link between the Palestinian-controlled West Bank and Gaza Strip _ a long-anticipated move that takes Palestinians a step closer to statehood and boosts confidence in the peace process.

Israel’s territory separates the two autonomous areas in which Palestinians hope to establish an independent state. Since 1993, only Palestinians with work permits have been allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and they were not allowed to leave one Palestinian-controlled territory and cross Israel to enter the other.

Now, the so-called safe passage will allow Palestinians to travel between the two areas. The 28-mile route, which uses existing roads in Israel, also enables residents of poverty-stricken, crowded Gaza to seek jobs in the more prosperous West Bank.

Early today, hundreds of Palestinians, mostly young men, waited in line at the Erez Crossing to travel through Israel to the West Bank. Travelers carried duffle bags or backpacks and many smiled with anticipation.

``Today, we can smell the wind of freedom,″ said Rashed Eloyan, 19, who was born in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis and has never left the coastal strip.

Eloyan said his destination was the bustling West Bank town of Ramallah. He said he didn’t know anyone there and simply wanted to take in some different sites.

After a brief opening ceremony, the first Palestinian car drove up to the inspection ramp. Israeli security officials opened the hood and checked the car’s underside. They wore white gloves, the type that can detect explosives.

After 10 minutes, the driver, a Palestinian Authority official, was given permission to drive into Israel.

``I hope this will be a step toward geographic unity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip,″ said the official, Mousa Abu Saadeh.

Sami Musleh, 27, a former activist of the Palestinian uprising from the Shati refugee camp, said he was headed to Ramallah to visit friends he had made during four years in an Israeli prison.

He said that if Israel continues with confidence-building steps, Palestinians will become less and less supportive of Islamic militants who have tried to disrupt peacemaking with terror attacks.

``No one will think for a minute to carry out any violent act against Israelis,″ he said. ``Giving people here money, security and hope, they will never think about anything else.″

Israeli officials said they expect 1,000 Palestinians daily will use the route that leads from Erez to the West Bank village of Tarkumiya.

The safe passage will let most Palestinians enter Israel for 1 1/2 to two hours to travel the route. Palestinians considered to be security risks can travel the route twice a week on special buses manned by Israeli security personnel.

Hard-line Israeli opponents of the peace process warn that Palestinian extremists could use the route to infiltrate into Israel and attack civilians.

The passage has been part of peace agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians since 1995, but its implementation was always delayed because of Israeli security concerns. Most recently, it was scheduled to have opened Oct. 1 as part of the latest interim peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that in a final peace deal, the route will be replaced by an elevated highway so Palestinians can travel between the two areas without entering Israel. Such a highway would give the Palestinians the territorial contiguity necessary to join Gaza and the West Bank in a unified state.

For now, hundreds of Gazans have received special magnetic cards permitting them to use existing Israeli roads to make the crossing.

``It’s nice to feel that you have become a free man,″ said Abdel Salam Abu-Kortam, 29, a grocery store owner in Gaza City who hasn’t been to the West Bank since studying at a college there 10 years ago.

But some Palestinians fear Israel will renege on a promise not to arrest Palestinians wanted for security violations as they travel the route.

``I am not sure that Israel will not use the passage as a trap,″ said Mohammed Ali Salah, 23, a university student.

Still, he said, the safe passage meant ``real peace.″

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