To show good faith, let Palestinian goods flow across border

August 26, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA - The air of unreality about U.S. policy toward the Israeli pullout from Gaza reminds me of the wishful thinking that preceded the Iraq war.

President Bush has banked his hopes on the following scenario: Now that Israeli settlers and troops are out of Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can transform that sand spit into an economic showcase. He must also end terror and create a mini-democracy there.

International donors will provide funds to cut the 60 percent unemployment rate among Gaza's 1.3 million people. Any move to link the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza with renewed peace negotiations should be postponed indefinitely.

"It's very important for the world to stay focused on Gaza and helping the Gaza economy get going," the president said Tuesday. In other words, any progress on peace talks will depend on Gaza's success.

What's wrong with this picture?

Gaza cannot be disconnected from the West Bank or the broader peace process. Yes, Mr. Abbas must crack down on groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that carry out terrorist attacks. But his public will support such a crackdown only if it thinks such groups are blocking a return toward negotiations.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has fueled the idea that the Gaza withdrawal was meant to solidify Israel's hold on the West Bank. He vowed this week he would continue expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. One already hears talk among Palestinians of a third intifada - against West Bank settlers.

U.S. officials argue that Israel needs time to recover from the trauma of the Gaza withdrawal. They claim an influx of international aid will help Mr. Abbas consolidate his hold there and undercut Hamas' strength.

Yes, international largesse may create some jobs. But without linking Gaza to the broader peace process, its economy can't revive.

Here's why: For security reasons, Israel still retains control over Gaza's borders, airspace and sea space. Its airport and partly built seaport have been closed for security reasons, and only 4,000 Gazan workers enter Israel sporadically to work, with little indication that Israel will accept more. In effect, Gaza is still sealed off from the world.

The full meaning of such isolation is on view at the Karni crossing, through which Gazan goods must pass to reach Israeli or international markets. For security reasons, goods must be offloaded from Palestinian trucks, inspected and reloaded onto Israeli trucks. Only a few dozen Palestinian trucks make it out on a good day. Perishables often spoil.

What use is it to turn thousands of Israeli greenhouses over to Palestinians if the flowers wilt on the way to market? Investors won't come if their products languish at Karni. Talks are under way about installing X-ray machines that can check goods without offloading them. Similar ideas have been discussed for more than a decade. But Israeli security fears rule out quick results.

Is it possible to address those fears, and prevent the Gaza withdrawal from leading to new violence? Yes, if Gaza is not cut off from the West Bank - and the rest of the world.

Palestinians need concrete signs that if Hamas lays down arms, peace talks will restart. Until that happens, nothing should be done that prejudices negotiations such as expanding West Bank settlements.

The "road map" peace plan endorsed by Mr. Bush calls for a simultaneous freeze on settlement construction and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorist infrastructure. If Mr. Bush believes in his Gaza vision, he must press both sides to show good faith.

And if he wants Gaza's economy to grow, there is no symbol more important than Karni. If goods could flow in and out of Gaza, Palestinians might believe something was changing. But if flowers for export wilt at the border, the hopes for peace will wilt there, too.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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