Since Ehud Barak was elected Israeli Prime Minister in the spring of 1999, the Palestinians have realized several significant achievements. Subsequent to the September Sharm El-Sheikh Accord, Israel released scores of Palestinian prisoners, transferred land to Palestinian control, and allowed the development of the Gaza Port to commence.
Practically, the most significant event was the opening in October 1999 of the long-anticipated "safe passage" zone through which Palestinians could travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This 44-kilometer corridor, extending from the Erez checkpoint (Gaza Strip) to Tarqumiyah near Hebron, holds significant symbolic value for the Palestinians, since it forms both demographic and geographic unity between Gaza and the West Bank.
Besides this, the passage answers criticism directed at Israel that it has prevented Palestinians in the separate autonomous areas from visiting friends and family. Inaugurating the safe passage aims to improve the Palestinians' social and economic plight. It may also have the effect of alleviating Palestinian trade obstacles and easing the sense of isolation that is especially prevalent in Gaza, whose 1 million residents could until now only leave the Strip with permits that were difficult to obtain.
The World Economic Forum at Davos during January 20000 provided an opportunity for Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton to discuss timely political issues (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a last minute decision not to attend). Still, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders understand they have to accelerate efforts to reach a peace settlement. Both sides have expressed serious doubt about meeting the February 13 2000 deadline for a framework agreement; negotiations over lagging Israeli withdrawals from West Bank territory remain deadlocked.
Not all news on the Palestinian front is discouraging, however. Earlier this month, the Palestinian National Authority announced policy changes, which include a new financial management body and assurances that tax revenues and public accounts would be the responsibility of the Finance Ministry. Michael Camdessus, head of the International Monetary Fund, has publicly welcomed these proposed reforms. The designed measures come in response to international criticism regarding a lack of transparency and high levels of perceived corruption throughout Palestinian public institutions, which may threaten future streams of foreign donor aid.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )