Israel considers responsibility transfer under Abbas, US pressure.
The Defense Ministry has begun preparing for the possible transfer to the PA of responsibility for the crossings into the Gaza Strip, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
On Wednesday night, Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, met with Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian Authority’s minister for civilian affairs.
The two men decided to establish a number of joint Israeli-PA teams to coordinate work on two issues – the renovation of the Kerem Shalom crossing and international construction projects in the Gaza Strip.
The work at Kerem Shalom will include the construction of infrastructure that could be used one day by the PA if it were to take over control of the crossing from Israel.
Washington and PA President Mahmoud Abbas have been pressuring Israel for several years to transfer control over the Gaza crossings to the PA. This has been regarded by some as a means of enabling the PA to regain a small foothold in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Until now, the IDF has opposed the move, citing security risks.
Since the government’s decision last week to ease the blockade on Gaza, the IDF understands that this is likely to be one of the next steps that Israel will have to take.
The IDF also anticipates that it will soon be asked to begin allowing Gazans to export goods as well. The IDF opposes the export idea since, if it is allowed, Israel would be left without any leverage over Hamas.
The need to expand Kerem Shalom stems from the cabinet’s decision to increase the number of trucks that cross daily into Gaza from around 100 to close to 250.
In addition, the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories is considering opening the Karni crossing three days a week instead of just two. While Karni is closed to trucks due to the risk of terrorist attacks, animal feed, grain and gravel are transferred there on a mechanical conveyer belt.
European Union observers may be involved in control transfer
The model under which Israel would transfer control over the crossings would likely involve an international mechanism like the European Union observers, who were stationed at the Rafah crossing from 2005 until 2007, when they were kicked out by Hamas. EUBAM Rafah (The European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah Crossing Point) has since kept a smaller delegation (18 international members and 8 local staff, according to its Web site) on standby in Ashkelon, awaiting a political decision to redeploy the observers at one of the Gaza crossings.
Under such a model, the PA would run the crossing with international oversight, to ensure that only legitimate supplies were transferred. It is not clear whether there would be any IDF presence.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said during a tour of Kerem Shalom on Thursday that the amount of goods crossing weekly from Israel into Gaza is 40 percent of the amount of goods imported into the whole of Israel.
He led 80 foreign diplomats to the Kerem Shalom crossing so they could see for themselves how Israel transfers goods to Gaza.
He said he had wanted the diplomats to “understand first-hand the real effort that Israel is doing and has been doing to make sure that there is continued and consistent flow of civilian goods to Gaza, in order that the civilian population in Gaza will not be affected by the occupation of Hamas.”
He explained that about 10,000 tons of goods a week head into Gaza for its population of 1.5 million, compared with the 20,000 to 25,000 tons a week that is imported into Israel for its population of 7.5 million.
“It is more than enough to meet the needs of the Gaza population,” he said.
Still, he said, Israel in the next few weeks plans to increase the flow of goods into Gaza to a level close to what it was before Israel closed the crossings to all but humanitarian goods in 2007.
“We will double and even triple the amount of goods sent into Gaza. The only bottlenecks that will remain will be on the Palestinian side,” Ayalon said.
International organizations have urged Israel to re-open Karni, a crossing that was designed to handle mass quantities of goods, particularly raw industrial materials, needed for the Gaza economy to thrive.
But on Thursday, Ayalon said that Kerem Shalom could handle the necessary flow of consumer goods.
“The idea is to move all the operations to Kerem Shalom, which is easier to defend and protect,” he said.
Ayalon: 'Karni remains a dangerous crossing'
Karni remains a dangerous crossing to operate because of its proximity to a densely populated area of the Strip, said Ayalon.
“We have sustained casualties there,” he said, adding that rockets have been fired at it and tunnels dug underneath it.
He noted that even though Kerem Shalom was safer than Karni, it was not immune from Hamas’s attacks.
He showed the diplomats the security procedures at the crossing.
“The people who work at the crossing do so under constant threats,” Ayalon told the diplomats.
“Even though this crossing itself has been targeted on a regular basis, including yesterday, when a missile landed not far from here, we will continue meeting our responsibilities so that there is a continued and constant flow of goods into Gaza,” he said.
Kerem Shalom Manager: 'The operation is extremely complex'
To best explain the complexity of the operation, which involves international support, particularly from the United Nations, Kerem Shalom crossing manager Ami Shaked noted that the scanner the IDF uses there was made in China, purchased by the US, flown to Israel on a Russian plane and installed on Israeli soil to help the Palestinians.
Among the items visible at the crossing on Thursday morning were stacks of lumber for a construction project under the auspices of the international community and industrial-sized spools of thread.
Ayalon reminded the diplomats that Israel left Gaza in 2005, destroying 21 Jewish communities there.
Gaza could have been a pilot program for responsible governance and economic development, said Ayalon. Instead, Gaza became “a major Iranian base of terror.”
When looking at the present arrangements at the crossings, Ayalon said, “It is important to note how things are being arranged so that Hamas is not in the picture. Hamas is not in control of Gaza, it merely occupies Gaza.”