Sunday, January 25, 2009
Background: The inside story of Gaza's blighted border crossings
How to help the Palestinians in Gaza has lately been reduced to the realm of simple slogans aimed at Israel, such as "end the blockade" or "open the crossings."
When uttered by activists or international politicians and officials, it sounds as if all that's needed is for Israel to open some mythical gate to the 360-square kilometer area wedged between Israel and Egypt. They ignore the fact that Egypt shares a border with Gaza, too, which it is also keeping closed. And they do not take into account the difficulties posed in running the crossings since Hamas kicked out the Palestinian Authority - which operated these passages - from Gaza during a violent coup in June 2007.
When Israel left Gaza in the summer of 2005, a detailed arrangement called "Agreement on Movement and Access" was made with the PA for the passage of goods and people in and out of the area.
On the Israeli side, people were to move in and out of Erez in the north and commercial goods were to go through Karni in the center. On the Egyptian side in the south, the Rafah border crossing was designated for the passage of people and goods, but an agreement for the passage of people was finalized.
In addition, on the Israeli side, two minor crossing points, Kerem Shalom and Sufa, were set up to operate as backups to Karni, and fuel could go through Nahal Oz.
Since operating the three major crossings - Erez, Karni and Rafah - needed serious coordination on both sides of the border, the PA manned them on the Gaza side. A special EU team was also established to monitor the Rafah crossing.
In the midst of Israel's Gaza withdrawal in 2005, Interior Ministry officials held a press conference at the Erez crossing, at which they earnestly explained that in the peace that would descend within two years, it would be possible to replace the soldiers at the crossing points with trained professional staff so that they would look like any other international border terminal.
Discussions were even launched on operating the Gaza airport and a seaport.
But these plans, along with the elaborate crossing arrangements, were destroyed by the Hamas coup. After that, the PA was no longer able to monitor the crossings, which were also damaged on the Gaza side during the fighting and have yet to be repaired.
Though there were some reports over the weekend of a new willingness to cooperate, Hamas to date has not agreed to allow the PA to return. Since the coup, no solution been found that would place, as an alternative to the PA, a team of Palestinians on the Gaza side to coordinate the movement of goods and people.
Therefore, it is not been possible to fully operate the Erez, Karni and Rafah crossings at the pre-June 2007 level.
To be clear, as long as Hamas remains in power and holds IDF soldier Gilad Schalit captive, Israel won't fully reopen the passages to a level that would allow the free movement of people or enable a flourishing economy in the Gaza Strip.
But even if it wanted to do so, as long as Israel and Hamas refuse to coordinate with each other on the crossings and as long as no alternative body can do so, opening them remains technically impossible, from both a security and logistical perspective.
In the interim, the Erez crossing has been open in a limited fashion to people, mostly diplomats, international aid workers and medical cases.
Israel remained committed to providing humanitarian aid and limited commercial imports via the smaller crossings at Sufa and Kerem Shalom and the fuel depot at Nahal Oz.
For international aid organizations over the past 18 months - mostly the UN, which provides basic food supplies to 1.1 million out of the 1.4 million people who live in Gaza - these two passages have served as temporary portals.
But Hamas has intermittently attacked these passages and as a result, Sufa has been closed for security reasons, leaving only Kerem Shalom.
At Kerem Shalom, Israeli trucks unload their goods in a concrete lot and then pull away. The gate to the lot is then closed on the Israeli side and Palestinian trucks drive in to load the goods and take them into Gaza.
This system can handle a smaller amount of goods than Karni, where the transfer is faster and also cheaper.
International aid organizations have found, for example, that Kerem Shalom cannot process the amount of grain needed to feed both people and livestock in Gaza. As a result, Israel has opened the wheat chute at Karni, which can be operated without much coordination on the other side.
According to Maj. Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, last week some 1,006 trucks loaded with 27,650 tons of humanitarian aid and goods went into Gaza through Kerem Shalom, including grain chuted through Karni.
In addition, he said, 1,940,000 liters of fuel for the Gaza power station went in through Kerem Shalom and Nahal Oz, along with 766 tons of cooking gas.
Overall, he said, since the start of Israel's military operation in Gaza four weeks ago, 2,361 trucks of supplies have gone in with 60,000 tons of goods, as well as 5.5 million liters of fuel for the power plant.
International aid organizations, including the UN, have said that Gaza needs an even greater level of humanitarian assistance. They have called on Israel to allow more goods to pass through both Kerem Shalom and Karni.
Lerner said that capacity is increasing and this week could be up to 250 trucks a day. He added that he is unaware of any unmet humanitarian needs.
During a brief visit to the region this week, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes called on Israel to do more than just increase the flow of humanitarian goods into Gaza.
Kerem Shalom, he said, provides only a fraction of what is needed in Gaza.
He was not daunted, he said, by the diplomatic failure to date to return the PA to the crossings at Rafah, Karni and Erez.
While Hamas has focused on the need to open Rafah, Holmes said his goal was to see Karni fully reopened at a level that would enable the Gaza economy to flourish.
It is possible, he told The Jerusalem Post, to reopen Karni by placing an acceptable international coordinating body at that crossing, possibly drawn from the European Union or Turkey.
It is particularly important to do so if Israel and Egypt succeed in closing the tunnels under Rafah, which Palestinians have used to smuggle goods into Gaza from Sinai, Holmes said.
Most of that activity is commercial, he said, and if the tunnel route is closed down, it is important open up another avenue for the flow of goods.
Holmes added that he is not willing to join the "council of despair" that claims that Karni cannot be reopened.
What should be paramount in everyone's mind at this point, he said, "is the welfare of the people in Gaza."