Fear and hope along the safe passage

JERUSALEM, Nov. 1 (JTA) — Israelis were on their way back from a solidarity rally with the Jewish settlers of Hebron when their worst fears were realized.

Assailants in the dark fired on their bus.

No group claimed responsibility for Saturday night’s ambush near the West Bank village of Tarkumiya — the final point of the safe-passage route Israel opened last week for Palestinians traveling between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Already, the attack is raising the question of whether Prime Minister Ehud Barak is granting too many concessions to the Palestinians without getting enough in return.

Five passengers were injured on the bus, which was filled with men, women and children.

Given the ideology that had led them to participate in the rally, it was unlikely that many aboard the bus support the opening of the safe-passage route — or any other concessions to the Palestinians.

From the standpoint of the Israeli peace camp, the attack could not have come at a worse time, taking place just two days before Barak, President Clinton and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat converged on Oslo for a summit amid commemorations marking the fourth anniversary of the slaying of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The safe-passage route’s opening was called for in the September land-for-security accord Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed in Egypt.

It allows Palestinians to move freely between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — subject to Israeli security controls.

The attack, which took place just six days after Israel opened the route, came as Israeli hard-liners are warning the route will be used by terrorists to carry out attacks against Israelis.

Palestinian officials reject such claims.

“This is total nonsense,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told JTA this week. “The safe passage is the best thing that has happened to the peace process in a long time.”

Erekat and other Palestinian officials discounted the fact that the attack came near the Tarkumiya terminal, adding that they believe the assailants came from within Israeli-controlled territory. They say the attack could have happened anywhere within the Jewish state.

According to Israeli Arab Knesset member Dr. Ahmed Tibi, the route has “tremendous symbolic value.”

Moreover, he added, “it renews the territorial link between both parts of Palestinian territory.”

While Israelis debate the wisdom of opening the route, it has also created potential problems in Palestinian society.

During the past week, thousands of Palestinians — mostly young people, many of whom were banned by Israel from leaving Gaza — made their way from Gaza to the West Bank.

This led to an unexpected problem: Many people in the West Bank were not quite ready for the influx of visitors.

While Ahmad Soublaban, a human rights activist, maintained that “our brethren” from Gaza “are always welcome,” there were indications that West Bankers were not prepared to roll out the welcome mat.

With the route’s opening, old tensions between the West Bank and Gaza surfaced — tensions between a traditional elite and the predominantly refugee population of Gaza.

Palestinian society has always been sharply divided — between religious and secular, city residents and villagers, the educated and the less educated.

There has also been a political divide between the local leadership and the PLO leaders who emerged in the Palestinian diaspora.

During the days of the intifada, the 1987-1993 uprising against the Jewish state, the two societies in Gaza and the West Bank cooperated against their common enemy.

But now, with the route’s opening, young Gazans are expressing a relief that is not shared by all West Bankers.

“It’s a smell of fresh air,” said Mohammad Ashraf, 22, of the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, when he traveled last week to the West Bank town of Ramallah.

For Ashraf, it was no easy task to reach Ramallah. He had to wait in line with hundreds of Palestinians. His papers were checked time and again. His car was thoroughly scrutinized by Israeli officials before he began the 90-minute trip to Tarkumiya in the southern Judean Mountains.

Once there, he took a roundabout route, bypassing Jerusalem, until he reached Ramallah.

He had no specific goal in mind. He said he just wanted to see Ramallah and sigh with relief.

He added that he planned to stay a day or two with distant relatives before returning home.

Unlike Ashraf, thousands of young Palestinians are hoping to find work in the West Bank — and remain there.

This could well spell problems.

Gazans, as a general rule, are less educated, worse off economically and more religious than residents of the West Bank.

Unemployment in Gaza is more than 17 percent, almost double the rate in the West Bank.

Several mosques in the Ramallah area are already reportedly filling up with young Gazans who do not have a place to stay the night.

Given that more Gazans are traveling to the West Bank in search of economic opportunity, the reunion between the two self-rule areas could soon develop into a major social problem.

Economist Hisham Awartani of the Palestinian Center for Research and Studies in the West Bank town of Nablus has warned that wages will inevitably drop if Gaza job-seekers can freely relocate.

Moreover, given the relative ease with which they can move from the West Bank into the Jewish state, they may also compete for high paying construction jobs in Israel.

Palestinian economists are confident that the standard of living in Gaza will rise more than the West Bank’s will fall.

Just the same, they say, closer links between the two economies will demand greater sacrifices on the part of West Bankers.

While Knesset Member Tibi is enthusiastic about the route’s opening, he nonetheless believes that the Palestinian Authority will have to develop new policies to facilitate the economic merger of the two areas.

But Erekat, who serves as Interior Minister in the Palestinian Authority’s Cabinet, insists that the short-term growing pains resulting from such a merger will be nothing compared to the gains of linking the two areas.

“If the West Bank can purchase cheaper agricultural products from the Gaza Strip and thus contribute to employment in the Strip, what’s bad about it?”

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