Why can't Palestinians travel between West Bank and Gaza?
The question should be asked now as everyone is preparing for U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the region.
During a visit to Gaza, I was surprised by the number of Palestinians I met who were in their '20s and '30s, who have never been to the West Bank, including to Jerusalem.
Nearly three million Palestinians in the West Bank are prevented from travelling to Gaza (except through Jordan, Egypt and then try crossing at Rafah) and 1.5 million Gazan Palestinians are not able to travel to the West Bank using any border. This is not a travel ban against certain people who are a security threat. This is not a temporary order that follows or precedes a particular escalation of violence. This is a blanket decision that has no logic, a violation of international law regarding the rights of a population under a belligerent military occupation.
It is also a clear violation of one of the main clauses agreements between Israel and the PLO, often called Oslo Accords, whereby Israel committed (as per Article IX) to allow "safe passage for people and vehicles between the two Palestinian areas."
An attempt to follow up on that agreement happened five years later. The protocol concerning safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was signed in Jerusalem on October 5, 1999. Israel's failure to honour that protocol led U.S. officials and peace envoys to work on and reintroduce it, to no avail.
During the Bush administration, another attempt was made to break this restriction. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer worked an entire night in Jerusalem, during George Bush's second term, to produce results, but the agreement was again never implemented.
Israel has used one excuse after another to deny the Palestinians the right to travel from one Palestinian area to another. Whether it admits it or not, separating Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian territories has been a major strategic Israel goal. The two-state solution, which has received international support and even Israeli public approval, stipulates that the Palestinian territories must be contiguous. While a fast rail or a tunnel connecting Gaza and the West Bank might take some time, it is still possible to allow Palestinians to travel back and forth.
The ugly Israeli wall is now in place and many Palestinians are saying that the Israelis can install whatever security measures they wish to ensure that the safe-passage road is used only to transfer people. Denying millions of Palestinians the right to travel to and from Gaza clearly amounts to collective punishment.
As Palestinians prepare for the upcoming visit of the U.S. president to the Palestinian areas, many wonder what the Palestinian leadership will be asking from the American leader.
Israeli newspapers are hinting at the possibility of the release of Palestinian prisoners, possibly even of leaders of the Intifada like Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa'adat.
While the release of prisoners from Israeli jails will be welcomed, a more important achievement can be made if Palestinians being imprisoned in the largest prison in the world, the Gaza Strip, can be freed to travel in their own country and meet relatives and friends.
Palestinian political leaders seem to have resigned themselves to accepting the near impossibility of a simple act, which is allowing Palestinians to travel freely in their own country.
Absent from the political discourse of Palestinian leaders today is the right to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank.
Accomplishing this right can break up what the Israelis have been trying to do for decades. It will lift the spirits of Palestinians under occupation and siege and will invigorate economy, business, tourism and the people's well-being.