Gazans rush to apply to travel `safe passage'

For some Palestinians, loosening of restriction offers chance of a lifetime

October 13, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinians got their first chance to apply for travel along the soon-to-open "safe passage" route from Gaza to the West Bank yesterday, and by 1 p.m. more than 1,000 Gazans had elbowed and jostled their way into six local government offices to turn in the required forms.

For some, it offered the chance of a lifetime. At the office on Nasser Street where applications were handed out, the crowd of mostly young men in their 20s and early 30s included many who had never seen the other half of what they hope will become a Palestinian state.

"We have a generation who haven't been outside Gaza," said Zaiad al Abed, who heads the operation here.

Textile worker Nur el Dien, 26, said he hadn't even tried to get permission to enter Israel from Gaza before. Access was severely restricted a dozen years ago at the start of the violent Palestinian uprising known as the intifada.

If he obtains permission to take his family out next week, it will give his wife her first chance to visit relatives in Nablus.

The long-awaited safe passage is now scheduled to open Sunday after a series of political and bureaucratic glitches. Allowing people to apply yesterday meant that hundreds of Palestinians could get the chance to travel on the first day.

Many of yesterday's applicants said they hope to go in the first days.

Al Abed delivered the first batch of 1,000 applications to Israeli authorities for their approval early yesterday afternoon and predicted that it would take only a couple of days for people who plan to use public transportation to receive the permits, which are good for one year. Those traveling by private car will have to wait longer.

"It's very excellent if it's not a trap," says Bashir Balawi of Gaza City, revealing the fear harbored by some Palestinians that using the route will make them sitting ducks subject to arrest by Israeli police. The Israeli government is dismissive of such fears.

For Balawi, 40, who hasn't left Gaza in 12 years, the route means more than a chance to reacquaint himself with relatives and the property that he owns in the West Bank; it is a chance to expand his small business.

After selling candy in Gaza, he opened a grocery store in the city's industrial area a year ago. Now he's thinking of growing produce on his West Bank property for his store or delivering fish from coastal Gaza to the West Bank.

For some who already have Israeli permission to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank, the "safe passage" will simply provide greater convenience.

Ayman Wishah, 32, an accountant in the West Bank city of Ramallah, expects a much shorter daily commute. Getting to work now can take up to three hours.

Mariam al Khateeb, 60, has received Israeli permission before to travel between the huge, congested Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, where she lives, and her daughter's home near Hebron in the West Bank. But it usually required a week's wait, and the trip was tiring.

"Sometimes I would take with me a gift and they would confiscate it -- nuts, bananas, sweets," she said.

She was among the few women applicants yesterday. Men are allowed to submit applications for their wives and children.

Intifada veterans Samir Salaama, 20, and Ahmad Ismail Seder, 19, who have been repeatedly blocked in seeking permission to enter Israel, see the route as a ticket to a better future. Both intend to enroll at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. Salaama now sells cold drinks; Seder is a plasterer.

Palestinian policeman Allah Marzouk moves regularly between the two territories as part of his job. But his wife and four children have stayed in Gaza all their lives and are eager to make a weeklong trip to stay with family in Nablus.

"I will have more freedom," he said.

The safe passage is the kind of direct benefit to the Palestinian population that many critics of the peace process contend has been too slow in coming. If successful, it will give the Palestinian people a greater stake in the movement toward greater cooperation with Israel.

The new passage also increases Israel's leverage, because the government could shut it down if there is a new eruption of violence or terrorism against Israelis.

Eventually, it could be a boon to the economy of an emerging Palestinian state, allowing West Bank residents to go to Gaza's beach on weekends and easing the movement of goods from the as-yet-unbuilt Gaza port to the cities of the West Bank.

For it to become a major thoroughfare, however, would require substantial new road-building. Part of the route dates to the years of the British mandate. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak supports the building of an elevated highway for the Palestinians.

The only economic result visible at the moment is the land-office business conducted next door to the application center, where the Ganet Lebanon company charges a fee to fill out the forms in Arabic and Hebrew on a typewriter and provide the necessary two passport photos.

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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