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How the Mideast Deal Helps Palestinians Where They Live

Winning land is welcome, but the early impact is easing travel through Israel

Jamal Safi spent eight days and $600 trying to get from his Gaza Strip home to this West Bank village where he studies at Bir Zeit, the Palestinian university.

Without a permit to travel across Israel - nearly impossible for him to obtain legally - he hadn't been able to return home to Gaza for a year and a half. When he finally did, he couldn't get out.

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To get to a point only about 60 miles away as the crow flies, he had to travel from Gaza to Egypt to Jordan, where he was turned away at the West Bank's border by Israel. Then he went back to Egypt, flew to Tel Aviv, got sent back to Gaza - and finally showed up for class.

It's not uncommon for Palestinians to tell of travel hassles that conjure one of their best gesticular proverbs: touching your right hand to your right ear, then letting go and reaching your arm all the way over your head to touch the left. A painfully long way around, it implies.

With the signing of the Wye Memorandum in Washington last week, the trip between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank may once again be the two-hour trip that it can be.

The long overdue opening of two "safe passage" routes, one leading from Gaza to Hebron and one to Ramallah, just outside of Bir Zeit, means hundreds of thousands of Palestinians should have an easier time getting to work, school, and their families.

Mr. Safi hopes it means he will be able to hop a bus, the way a "normal" college student would, to see Mom and Dad - who live in a seaside refugee camp.

"It's the only point that really touches people deeply inside," says Safi, an engineering student who has lost two academic years due to the difficulties of traveling. "People don't really care about security arrangements or 13 percent. Everyone in the West Bank is talking about this [safe passage] now and waiting to see how and if it will really change."

It took as long for Safi to get to campus as it did for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reach a deal on Mr. Netanyahu's handover of 13 percent of the West Bank to Mr. Arafat.

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In addition to gaining more land, the Palestinians made an array of gains that could add up to large-scale relief from the economic and social pressures of being under Israeli control: the phased release of 750 Palestinian prisoners, the opening in Gaza of an industrial zone and an airport.

It is the agreement to open the safe-passage routes, however, that may be the most practical way of easing the burden on average Palestinians.

Yet it also touches heavily on Israeli security concerns that could keep it from being implemented as speedily and smoothly as Palestinians would like.

The process still promises to be bureaucratic, but Israeli officials say that in theory, no Palestinian should be prevented from traveling between the West Bank and Gaza.

"The meaning of safe passage is that people can move from one side to another without any problem," says Shlomo Dror, from the Israeli coordinator's office for the West Bank and Gaza. "It should be their aim as well as ours that no one will use this safe passage for terrorist action. If even one car in the safe passage is full of people [set to blow] themselves up in Tel Aviv, it will never work."

Though it promises to be a bumpy road for now, there are other suggestions for making it a smoother passage. Some, including a tunnel, had been ruled out as too costly, but one Israeli newspaper reported yesterday that Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian minister for planning, has received a $200 million grant from Japan to build an elevated road, and that Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed a train track to link the two areas.

For Palestinians, a link can't come soon enough. Safi's schoolmate Nevin, also from Gaza, hasn't been able to get home to visit her family in six months. She says of the separation between the Palestinian territories: "To us it's the same land, but it's like going to another continent."

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