By Phillip Kurata, Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington - James Wolfensohn, the special envoy of the international community to facilitate the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank, says the six months following the Israeli evacuation will be crucial in laying a foundation for future success in the peace process.
Wolfensohn testified before the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs of the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives July 26.
"It is absolutely essential that the Palestinians see that after the withdrawal there is a difference in their lives," he said.
Israel is planning to start evacuating 8,000 settlers from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank in mid-August. The operation is expected to last until early September.
The former World Bank president said creating greater incentive for peace among the 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza, 50 percent of whom are without work, means bringing in jobs, visible infrastructure and functioning schools and clinics, and a cleanup of vast expanses of untreated sewage.
Wolfensohn told the subcommittee that his principal concern is trying to put together a Gaza development program backed by the international community that "frankly can hold people for six months at least."
"Why? Because you will have the Jewish holidays. You will have Ramadan. You will have two elections, one of the Palestinians and one of the Israelis, and so you're going to have to keep hope," he said. "You need to have visible hope because at the time of the elections God knows what will be said."
Wolfensohn has been named "special envoy for Gaza disengagement" by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, known as the Quartet when dealing with the Israeli Palestinian issue.
Wolfensohn praised the leadership of President Bush at the G8 summit in Scotland in generating greater international support for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said that international support is needed to help the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, win in its political competition with Hamas, which the U.S. government has branded a terrorist organization, for the loyalty of the Palestinian people.
Wolfensohn said that "it is exceedingly important" that the Palestinian people see that the Palestinian Authority is "an alternative to Hamas, that it can be run honestly, that it will be run honestly and transparently and that it can provide the social services that are needed."
"Otherwise, Hamas, because of its provision of social services and a better reputation, has the opportunity of gaining political ground, which none of us would like to see," Wolfensohn said.
Wolfensohn said relieving the blockages at Israeli-controlled border crossings and checkpoints is a major focus of his work.
"This is not a gift by the Israelis to the Palestinians and it is not something that the Palestinians are asking for just to win a debate. What is necessary here if you want to have enduring peace is not a prison in Gaza and the northern West Bank, but an environment in which there can be movement of goods and people in an atmosphere of respect for the Palestinians," Wolfensohn said.
Wolfensohn praised the cooperation of the Israeli military to analyze the effectiveness and value of the Israeli checkpoints in Palestinian territories.
He said he is engaged in a three-stage program to facilitate the movement of people and goods at border crossings. He said trucks can wait as much as two weeks as their cargoes are unloaded, inspected and reloaded. The first stage involves improving the system in place at present, which he said is beset by high levels of corruption on both sides. The second stage involves introducing technology to unload and reload trucks and x-ray the cargoes. The third stage involves rebuilding the transportation corridors.
Regarding efforts to connect Gaza with the West Bank, which are separated by 40 kilometers of Israeli territory, Wolfensohn said the Israelis favor a rail link and the Palestinians seek a rail and a road connection. He said an effort is under way by the Quartet to mediate an agreement.
Wolfensohn said that building a seaport and an airport in Gaza are important steps to connecting the area with the outside world. He said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given the go-ahead for the seaport but is delaying authorization to proceed with the airport, which Wolfensohn said could be opened in six months.
As for the issue of what to do with the houses evacuated by the Israeli settlers, Wolfensohn said there is agreement on both sides that the houses should be demolished and new ones built.
He said the housing for 8,000 Israeli settlers sits on 25 percent of Gaza's land, a disproportionately large area compared to the living space allotted to the 1.2 Palestinians inhabiting the rest of Gaza. He said the United Nations is drafting a proposal for overall land use in Gaza.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)