Ayman Lubedeh hasn't been home to the Gaza Strip to see his parents and siblings in six years.
Lubedeh, 29, lives with his wife and son in the West Bank, where he works as a nurse. Israel has refused to let him cross its territory to reach Gaza, citing security concerns, so he has had to make do with frequent phone calls home. His family even missed his wedding two years ago.
That will soon change under an agreement signed today by Israel and the Palestinians establishing a 28-mile route through Israel linking the two parcels of land. The route, to open next week, will enable Palestinians to travel relatively freely between the two areas they control, boosting prospects for eventual statehood.
Both sides said the agreement helped improve relations after three years of deadlock. "Viewed from the experience of these talks, I see that we can rapidly get back to business and resume the spirit of mutual trust," said Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami.
The land route is part of a September peace accord that calls for Israel to hand over 11 percent more of the West Bank to Palestinian rule and release 350 prisoners jailed for security offenses, in exchange for Palestinian security measures. Israel's Prisons Authority said it would release a second group of prisoners by Thursday, a day ahead of schedule.
Until now, permits for Palestinians to travel through Israel were difficult to obtain and were usually valid for only a few days. Many people were ineligible, including young single men and those once held on suspicion of anti-Israeli activity.
Under the new arrangement, everyone is eligible in principle, although Israel reserves the right to reject applicants. Former Palestinian security detainees now can travel twice a week in buses under Israeli police escort. Others can use private cars for the first time.
The route extends from the West Bank village of Tarkoumiya to Gaza's Erez Crossing. The permits will be valid for a year, a Palestinian official said.
Concerns were raised that Palestinians suspected of committing crimes could be seized by Israeli security forces along the route. Israel said that while it would not compromise on its sovereignty, it would not try to trap Palestinians, said Palestinian negotiator Jamil Tarifi.
Lubedeh said he wanted to see how others fared before he applied for a travel permit. Lubedeh last visited his parents and six brothers and sisters in Gaza in 1993 and had difficulty getting a return permit to the West Bank.
Since then, he has been denied travel permits, apparently because he was detained several times during the 1987-93 uprising against Israeli occupation.
Lubedeh said he fears he could get held up in Gaza again.
"I won't risk my job and separation from my wife and son if Israel decides not to allow me to return to the West Bank," Lubedeh said.
Still, his parents are excited about a reunion and are already planning to throw another wedding party for him since they missed the West Bank ceremony.