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Following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, an issue that had been dormant for five years suddenly reappeared at the top of international community's agenda: the creation of a physical link between Gaza and the West Bank, along which Palestinian people and goods could travel without Israeli interference. The United States, the European Union and international agencies such as the World Bank all argue that without such a link, Gaza cannot survive economically in the post-disengagement era, and therefore, its establishment is now urgent.
Earlier this month, the US agreed to finance a study on various options for creating such a connection; the study is due to be completed by January. But the two leading options appear to be the World Bank's proposal for a sunken road between Gaza and the West Bank and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a railroad between them.
Either option creates obvious security problems. While border crossing arrangements between Gaza and Egypt have still not been finalized, Israel will certainly exercise much less control over who and what enters Gaza than it did before the disengagement. Thus if the Palestinians are allowed to move people and goods from Gaza to the West Bank with a similar lack of Israeli interference, Israel will have no way of preventing a massive flow of arms and terrorists via Gaza to the West Bank. Sharon's willingness to countenance such an idea while violence still rages in the West Bank therefore seems grossly irresponsible.
But beyond the security implications, both options have something else in common: Either the road or the railroad would run straight through the Negev, effectively slicing Israel in two. The physical connection between northern and southern Israel would be reduced to a series of overpasses spanning the West Bank-Gaza link.
Even if the security problem could somehow be solved, for Israel to agree to cut itself in two in the absence of a comprehensive peace treaty would constitute a major concession that ought to be conditioned on a suitable quid pro quo. But what makes the idea particularly outrageous is the world's hypocrisy over this issue: While the international community views a few overpasses as a sufficient link between northern and southern Israel, it has adamantly rejected Israel's contention that a similar link is sufficient between the northern and southern West Bank.
THIS HYPOCRISY has been particularly evident in the world's reaction to an Israeli plan to link Ma'aleh Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement, with Jerusalem by building some 3,500 apartments along a narrow corridor known as E-1. Despite Sharon's repeated pledges that disengagement would enable Israel to strengthen its hold on the West Bank settlement blocs, the government has thus far not even dared to submit this plan to the zoning board, much less actually start work, due to vehement opposition from the international community, and particularly the US.
The world's argument is that since Ma'aleh Adumim lies about half the width of the West Bank from Jerusalem, Israel's proposal would effectively cut the West Bank in two, forcing Palestinians to make a wide detour east of Ma'aleh Adumim in order to travel between the northern and southern West Bank. Sharon's response is that this problem could be solved by building tunnels or overpasses under or over E-1 to create a transportation link between the northern and southern West Bank - a link identical to the one that the international community has proposed between northern and southern Israel.
But it turns out that in the world's eyes, what is good enough for Israel is not good enough for the Palestinians. Even the Bush administration - the same administration that, according to Sharon, agrees that Ma'aleh Adumim should remain part of Israel under any final-status agreement - has adamantly rejected Sharon's idea; so, needless to say, has the rest of the international community. As far as the world is concerned, Israel can make do with a mere transportation link between its northern and southern halves - but the Palestinians must enjoy full territorial contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank.
IF SHARON were serious about leveraging the disengagement to strengthen Israel's hold on the settlement blocs, the Israeli response to this hypocrisy should be obvious: Jerusalem will not agree to a West Bank-Gaza link that reduces the connection between northern and southern Israel to a series of overpasses unless the Palestinians and the international community agree to similar links between Israel and the major West Bank settlement blocs, with the connection between various parts of the West Bank being similarly maintained via tunnels and/or overpasses. In practice, this means at the least allowing Israel to enclose such connecting corridors within the security fence - a project that, due to international opposition, has remained a dead letter despite Sharon's repeated declarations of intent to execute it.
However, Sharon has made no such demand for reciprocity - just as he has not built the fence around the settlement blocs, authorized large-scale construction within the blocs or taken any other concrete step to strengthen Israel's hold on them. Instead, he agreed to the principle of the West Bank-Gaza link without a murmur; his only request is that the link take the form of a railroad rather than a road.
Due to the grave security implications of the West Bank-Gaza link, Israel must condition actual construction on an end to the violence - which, as Sunday's terror attacks made clear, is not yet in sight.
But since discussion of this link has already begun, a diplomatic campaign for eventual reciprocity on this issue should be launched now. Jerusalem must make it clear that if mere "transportation contiguity" is sufficient between northern and southern Israel, it is equally sufficient between the northern and southern West Bank.