KEREM SHALOM, Israel, July 11 ?? Real life has a way of intruding into the airy absolutes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each side may deny the other’s historical legitimacy, or plot the other’s demise, but somehow, the gritty business of coexistence marches on.
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The New York Times
For the past month, since the Islamic militants of Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, Israel has kept the main commercial crossing point at Karni shuttered, squeezing the life out of the limp Gazan economy. Israel bans contact with Hamas, and Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction, making border crossing etiquette more precarious than elsewhere.
Yet at this small crossing near the Egyptian border on Wednesday, between mortar attacks by Hamas and other militants, about 20 truckloads of milk products, meat, medicines and eggs passed from Israel into Gaza, part of the effort to keep basic commodities reaching the 1.5 million Palestinians of the largely isolated strip. Most of the supplies are not humanitarian relief, but are ordered by Palestinian merchants from Israeli suppliers, relying on contacts built up over years.
The mechanics of the crossover manage to answer Israel’s security needs while avoiding contact with Hamas. At Kerem Shalom, Israeli trucks transfer their goods to what Israeli military officials describe as a “sterile” Palestinian truck. Driven by a carefully vetted Palestinian driver, the truck never leaves the terminal, carrying the goods to the Palestinian side, where they are transferred onto ordinary Palestinian trucks that drive into Gaza.
The hardier goods, which make up the bulk of the supplies, go through another crossing, at Sufa, to the north. About 100 Israeli trucks a day come from Israel, swirling up clouds of dust before dumping thousands of tons of dry products, bales of straw and crates of fruit on “the platform,” a fenced-in patch of baked earth. At 3 p.m. the Israeli suppliers leave. Like drug dealers picking up a “drop,” the Gaza merchants send in trucks from a gate on the other side and take the products away.
Other products make their way into Gaza with virtually no human interaction. At the fuel depot at Nahal Oz, Israeli tankers pour diesel, gasoline and cooking gas into Gaza through pipes that run beneath the border. And even at Karni, the main crossing that closed for normal operations on June 12, the Israelis have adapted a 650-foot-long conveyor belt, which was previously used for gravel, to send in grain.
“It is better all around from a security point of view that commodities go in,” said Maj. Peter Lerner of the Coordination and Liaison Administration, the Israeli military agency that deals with the civilian aspects of the Gaza border. “More despair doesn’t serve anyone.”
Israeli officials cite security reasons for having shut Karni, the only crossing equipped to send containers into Gaza, or to handle exports out of the strip. “Karni was based on the concept of two sides operating together,” said Col. Nir Press, the head of the coordination agency.
Colonel Press noted that in April 2006, a vehicle loaded with half a ton of explosives got through three of four checkpoints on the Palestinian side of Karni, and was stopped at the last security position by members of the American-backed Presidential Guard, loyal to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
But the Presidential Guard is no longer there, having been routed, along with all other Fatah forces in Gaza, by Hamas.
Instead, the military wing of Hamas and other Palestinian factions have been firing mortar shells at Kerem Shalom. On Tuesday, 10 of them landed in and around the terminal as two trucks of milk were passing. The crossing was closed for the rest of the day. [Another barrage of mortar shells hit areas around Kerem Shalom on Thursday.]
Hamas suspects that Israel wants to use Kerem Shalom to replace the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border, which has been closed since June 9. The Palestinians had symbolic control at Rafah. At Kerem Shalom, Israel can better supervise who ?? and what ?? is going in and out of the strip.
“Kerem Shalom is a military post, a place from which Israeli tanks begin their incursions into Gaza,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, justifying the mortar attacks. “How can we consider it a safe and legitimate crossing to replace Rafah?”
But when it comes to food, rather than principle, Hamas is proving itself pragmatic as well. On Sunday, Palestinian merchants, trying to press Israel to reopen Karni, told the Israelis that Hamas had barred the import of Israeli fruit. But by Wednesday, the Israeli fruit was ordered again. “Hamas does not want to lose the private sector,” a Gaza businessman explained.
Tellingly, the exposed Sufa crossing, through which most of the food comes, has not been attacked with mortars so far. Without Karni, however, and with the smaller crossings operating on a one-way basis, Gaza can barely subsist. With hardly any raw materials going in, and no products from Gazan farms, greenhouses and factories so far allowed out, Gaza’s tiny industrial base is on the verge of collapse.
Hamas officials say they want to start negotiations with Israel about reopening the formal crossings. Major Lerner said that Hamas had “a few things to do” first, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and freeing Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured and taken to Gaza in a raid more than a year ago.
But the ultimate test of pragmatism may come in September when the Hebrew calendar enters what is known in Jewish law as a “shmita” year. Then the fields of Israel are supposed to lie fallow, and observant Jews seek agricultural products grown elsewhere. Before the Hamas takeover, Israel’s rabbis had reached agreements with Palestinians to import vegetables from Gaza, Major Lerner said. Given the needs of both sides, it may still happen.