EREZ CROSSING, Israel – Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres (search) on Thursday urged the international community to donate tens of millions of dollars to upgrade border crossings in the Gaza Strip — a move he said is critical for boosting the Palestinian economy after Israel withdraws from the area.
Peres said roughly $120 million is needed to improve the three major crossings into Gaza (search). He said the money would be used on new technology that would allow goods to move quickly in and out of Gaza, and to reduce the wait times for Palestinian laborers entering Israel.
Both workers and cargo are frequently held up at the crossings due to Israeli security concerns. The Palestinians (search) say easier movement in and out of Gaza is essential for the impoverished, densely populated area to recover after Israel pulls out of the occupied area next month.
"We don't want to leave Gaza and keep Gaza closed. We want to facilitate movement of people and movement of goods," Peres said during a tour of two of the crossings. "We think the better the people in Gaza have it, the better neighbors we will have. It's in our interest."
Peres, who is overseeing the economic issues connected to the Israeli withdrawal, could face significant challenges in carrying out his plan — most significantly the cost.
He said Israel would be willing to contribute funds and suggested that $50 million pledged by the United States for the Palestinians be put toward the effort. But he said international donors would also be needed.
To reduce Gaza's isolation after the withdrawal, Israel and the Palestinians are discussing other measures such as reopening Gaza's airport and building a seaport. There is also a proposal to establish a rail link between Gaza and the West Bank — a project Peres said would take three years to complete and cost $400 million.
Israel has also announced that it plans to withdraw from the Philadelphi corridor — along Gaza's border with Egypt. That country has agreed to station about 750 soldiers in the area to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza.
Israel has conditioned its offers of eased movement on improved Palestinian efforts to rein in militants — a major sticking point in current talks.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed disappointment over those talks, saying the arrangements for a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza and other measures have fallen short of what had been negotiated before the outbreak of violence in 2000.
"We want nothing more than a successful and peaceful disengagement from Gaza, and we are trying our best to make the day after the disengagement a soft landing," he said. "So far we haven't been able to achieve this goal."
Israeli officials already have begun making improvements to the Erez crossing, the main entry point for Palestinian laborers from the northern Gaza Strip.
A concrete shell that will become a high-tech pedestrian crossing is under construction. Israeli officials said the terminal is expected to facilitate passage of 20,000 to 30,000 workers a day and be operational by the end of the year.
Despite more than four years of violence, many Palestinian families continue to rely on jobs in Israel, typically in construction, for their livelihoods, although the number has dropped dramatically since the fighting broke out in late 2000.
About 10,000 Gazans a day are permitted to enter Israel for work, according to the army.
The terminal is part of a large project meant to improve security along the border, including upgrading a massive fence, Israeli military officials said.
Israel wants to improve detection systems to compensate for pulling out its security forces from Gaza by November. Israel is building a second fence around the already fortified coastal territory, replete with watchtowers and remote-controlled machine guns.
In addition, a remote-controlled unmanned vehicle will begin patrolling the area by the end of the year.