US, Israel continue talks over convoys

The United States and Israel are continuing talks about the plan to run IDF-escorted buses between Gaza and the West Bank, even as Israel is maintaining its firm resistance to allow such buses to run. The Israelis, Palestinians and the United States had been organizing a test pilot this Thursday of a convoy program that would allow safe passage of Palestinian people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank through a series of IDF-escorted convoys. Following the Netanya attack that killed five people on December 5, Israel suspended all talks with the Palestinians on this issue and has insisted that it would not allow the convoys to run. Prime Minister Office spokesman Asaf Shariv told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that "all talks [on the convoys] are frozen." But sources told the Post that talks had continued on the matter with the US and the Israelis, including a conversation that took place on Sunday night. The US has been speaking separately with the Palestinians as well with respect to the Gaza passages. The US and the Israelis are talking about issues relating to the Gaza passages, including the convoys, but "no satisfactory solutions have been presented to the Israelis," said the Israeli source. Among the ongoing talks regarding the passages is clarification of a line in the agreement on the passage of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank brokered last month by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The document states that "the passages will operate continuously." It also states that "appropriate arrangements to ensure security will be adopted." Since then, the US and the World Bank have been working with the Israelis on the details of how to simultaneously secure Israel's borders, while at the same time allowing for the free flow of goods. Documents obtained by the Post detail an agreement under discussion by which Israel would be allowed to close a passage for security reasons, as long as it maintained another entry point for Palestinian goods and people. "Israel will not close a passage due to a security incident unconnected with the passage itself. A passage will only be closed if there is a clear and direct threat to that specific passage," said the document. "If a passage needs to be closed entirely, traffic will be switched at once to a designated alternate in order to minimize the flow of goods and people," said the document. It further adds that a similar plan could be put in place in the West Bank for Jalama, Sha'ar Efraim/Tulkarm and Tarkumiya. Even as the passages remain a controversial topic, on Sunday the first truck load of produce from the former Gaza settlers' greenhouses, now being operated by the Palestinian Company for Economic Development, went through the Karni crossing on its way to market. The Gaza hothouses were purchased with $13.5 million of donor funds and half a million dollars of private funds from Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn. PCED director-general Basel Jaber told the Post Monday that he hopes to have 10 trucks of produce a day moving through the crossing by the end of this week. "We are exporting to Europe and the United States," he said. He said that so far produce is being grown on 2,000 dunams of hothouses.