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Friday, June 18, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK

World: Middle East

Barak plans Palestinian highway

The incoming Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, has announced plans to build an elevated highway to connect the Palestinian-controlled territories of the West Bank with the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mr Barak said work would begin as soon as possible and would include a four-lane road, a railway, water pipes and a communications cable.

A spokeswoman for Mr Barak said the project, which is expected to cost around $200m, would help the new prime minister fulfil his campaign promise physically to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

"It will happen," Mr Barak is quoted as saying. "It's not pie in the sky."

Florida inspiration

[ image: Palestinians currently need special passes to go through Israel]
Palestinians currently need special passes to go through Israel
Mr Barak said he got the idea from a raised highway he saw in Miami, and said he had originally suggested it to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after the first autonomy agreements with the Palestinians were signed.

He said the road would connect the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun with the village of Dura in the southern West Bank.

Travel for Palestinians along the 47km that separates the West Bank from the Gaza Strip is made difficult because they need special passes to travel through Israel and cannot use private cars.

Corespondents say the link could help Palestinian hopes of building a state based on two territories lying to the east and west of Israel.

Safe passage

In a 1994 interim agreement, Israel agreed to open two "safe passage" routes between the territories using existing roads, but the deal was never followed through because of government security concerns.

Outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ruled out using Israel's own roads as safe passage routes for Palestinians.

Responding to Mr Barak's announcement, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he hoped the new prime minister would fulfil Israel's agreements.

Mr Barak has said he believes the creation of a Palestinian state in "inevitable" and agreed with suggestions that such a link would hasten the process.

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