Convoy Deal Going Nowhere Fast, Israel Says

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Convoy Deal Going Nowhere Fast, Israel Says

Jerusalem ( - Israel is continuing to talk with the U.S. -- but not with the Palestinian Authority -- about bus convoys that were supposed to transport Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, as laid out in a deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip and continuing rocket fire from that area is blocking implementation of the agreement, a senior Israel security official said on Tuesday.

Israel temporarily suspended talks with the P.A. last week, following the suicide bombing in Netanya.

The bus convoys -- which were supposed to start this Thursday -- would leave the northern Gaza Strip and travel nonstop about 50 miles across Israel, probably to the southern end of the West Bank.

Israel has not abrogated its part of the agreement, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. Israel wants to send a "political message" to the P.A. that "we can't have business as usual" when violence and terrorism are continuing.

Israeli officials have complained that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not done anything to crack down on terrorists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure since Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in mid-September.

The P.A. is pushing for the convoys. It also wants to keep open the border crossings from Gaza into Israel, to allow the flow of goods. Palestinians say unless they have access (through Israel) to Israeli and foreign markets, the economy in Gaza will not develop and terrorism will only increase.

Some Israelis worry that terrorists and weapons could be smuggled from the Gaza Strip into the West Bank on the bus convoys. Some officials indicated that Israel had been pressured into making the convoy deal, which also included the opening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

Israel has complained that since the Gaza-Egypt border was opened last month, at least 10 wanted terrorists have crossed into the Gaza Strip.

Washington continues to see the travel agreement as "serious and very important," said Stuart Tuttle, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv.

"We continue to hope that it will be implemented according to the terms [of the agreement]," said Tuttle.

The most important thing is that the two sides reach an agreement that will provide for Palestinian passage and Israeli security, he said.

Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz told Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday that the convoy agreement is stuck because the P.A. has not stopped terrorists from firing Kassam rockets at Israel or smuggling weapons, Israel Radio reported.

Senior Israeli military sources said earlier that Israel is greatly concerned about the smuggling of weapons from the Sinai Desert across the Egyptian-Palestinian border into Gaza, and the possibility that terrorist organizations might be able to transfer those weapons to the West Bank, which is much closer to Israeli population centers than Gaza is.

Hizballah in Gaza

Israeli security forces recently arrested a Palestinian terrorist in the West Bank who was operating under the direction of, and with financial support from, a Hizballah operative based in the Gaza Strip.

Hizballah previously has been involved in promoting and funding terrorism in Israel.

But according to the Israel Security Services, the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizballah terrorist organization, which is based in Lebanon, recently established a foothold in the Gaza Strip to transfer funds and instructions to terrorist organizations in the West Bank.

Throughout the current conflict with Palestinian terrorist organizations, Hizballah has tried to assert itself as the "sole directing influence" of operations carried out by the various Fatah Tanzim factions and cells, the ISS said.

"In recent months, Hizballah has set up a forward headquarters in the Gaza Strip to provide a direct link with terrorists in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] in order to transfer funds and instructions," the ISS said in a statement issued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office on Monday.

The ISS would not clarify if Hizballah established the beachhead after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The only condition that Hizballah set for groups receiving funds, the ISS said, was that terror attacks be carried out against Israeli targets. The ideology of the cells and terrorists involved in the attacks did not matter to the group, the ISS added.

Israeli security officials arrested Majdi Amar, an operative whose terror activities were being funded by Hizballah, in the West Bank city of Nablus in mid-October, Sharon's office said Monday.

Amar was a member of the P.A. security services and the al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which is the military wing of Abbas' Fatah faction. But Amar received instructions and funding from Hizballah in Lebanon and recently was instructed that his contact would now be a Hizballah operative in the Gaza Strip, he was quoted telling his interrogators.

Amar, whose name was on a list of wanted terrorists given to the P.A., said that the P.A. paid him to refrain from carrying out terror attacks, but he continued anyway.

In other developments, Palestinian terrorists fired a Kassam rocket from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli city of Sderot on Monday, causing some damage but no injuries. Israel responded with artillery fire, the army said.

Over the weekend, the Israeli army discovered a tunnel dug from the northern Gaza Strip under the security fence into Israel.

According to the army, terror organizations intended to use the tunnel to get into Israel and carry out terror attacks.

On Tuesday, Palestinians reported one man dead in a gun battle in the West Bank city of Nablus. The Israeli army said it entered the city to carry out an operation and was met with heavy gunfire. Soldiers returned fire, the army said.