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Tension at the 'vineyard of peace', the border crossing between Israel and Gaza

Palestinians sifting through rubble for metal. At 45%, the unemployment rate in Gaza is among the highest in the world.Ruairi Kavanagh, a journalist who specialises in security and military affairs, visits Kerem Shalom, the only currently functioning crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip and reports that the economic plight of the people of Gaza is a sub-plot of the current impasse between the Jewish State and the Hamas regime which governs Gaza that has repeatedly vowed to bring about the destruction of Israel.

The border crossing at Kerem Shalom is a tense place. The manager of the facility, Amos (not his real name), shows me around the tightly fortified plazas which are filled with trucks delivering cargo, which is then scanned and examined by teams of customs and security workers before, if allowed, being transferred to Gaza side of the crossing, which is run by Hamas. The fact that Hamas and Israel jointly run the crossing, albeit under a small UN monitoring presence, only adds to the surreal nature of the place, which is situated just a mere stone's throw from the Egyptian border.

The process of allowing goods into and out of the Gaza Strip is a tightly orchestrated and seemingly fluid affair. A truck arrives, its goods are unloaded. They are then examined by the Israelis for banned items of 'dual purpose', such as building materials destined for private companies in Gaza. Approved items, the list of which the Israelis say has greatly increased, are then loaded onto a sterile truck and driven to another plaza where they are then loaded onto another truck for delivery into Gaza itself. Walls and barriers, and weapons, are everywhere in Kerem Shalom. Human contact is minimal but according to Amos, this is the way it has to be and this is the way it works.

As I walked through Kerem Shalom in the company of several heavily armed guards, I talked to Lieutenant Colonel Uri Singer, who works in the foreign relations branch of COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities In The Territories). He says that Israel understands the need to “facilitate the goods going into Gaza,” despite the nature of the ruling Hamas regime in the Strip which has repeatedly sworn to destroy the Jewish state. As we walked through the loading and unloading bays, electrical equipment such as plasma televisions, household appliances and large slabs of polished marble were being examined before transfer into Gaza.

The Israelis have repeatedly said that it is clear that there is “no humanitarian aid crisis in Gaza” and indeed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) figures indicated that there was 15% growth in the Gazan economy in 2010. But the 1.5 million people in Gaza are undoubtedly suffering, the question is are their Hamas masters the orchestrators of their misfortune or is it Israeli policy?

Recent UN figures showed the unemployment rate at a shocking 45.2%, among the highest in the world (PDF). Critics of Israeli policy in the region point to Israeli restrictions on exports from Gaza and the banning of building materials to reconstruct parts of Gaza destroyed during the military engagement between Israel and Hamas in 2009, in what is known as 'Operation Cast Lead.'

The United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) says that over 300,000 people in Gaza are living on less than $1 a day and the organisation, which is the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, also says that the private sector in Gaza is not growing while the Hamas dominated public service is, and therefore Israeli policy towards Gaza, designed to weaken the Hamas regime, is in fact bolstering it. According to UNRWA, the Gazan private sector declined by 8% in the second half of 2010, shedding over 8,000 jobs. Conversely, the public service, which is controlled by Hamas, grew by 3%.

When Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, removing all settlements and industry, they say they left the remnants of agricultural and horticultural industry for the Palestinians to use. The Palestinians say that Israel destroyed these facilities before they left. Either way, the traditional Gazan exports of flowers, strawberries and peppers are at barely subsistence level at present.

The Israeli perspective on the Strip is that they want to see a stable Gazan economy but they cannot assist, or in any way support a regime such as Hamas that simply denies Israel's right to exist as a nation.

In the small office from which Amos manages the crossing he has some slightly faded photographs on the wall, and on a shelf beside them, a small plastic container with some sand in it. The pictures, of a seafront villa, are of his former home in Gaza, which he left in 2005 and of his family, who were born and raised there. He gets animated when Israeli policy towards Gaza is questioned. “I get angry when people try to judge us. I left that place, my home, in 2005,” he says, showing me the sand from his home which he took with him. “I left it for peace, so my country can have some peace. We left it all to them, and what have we got in return? More violence.” He points to the graph on the wall nearby which shows the increase in the launching of rocket and mortar shells from Gaza into Southern Israel. The figures are for 2010, but they are mostly on an upwardly sliding scale with the most intense month being December 2010, when 32 missiles were fired.

Indeed, walking through the Kerem Shalom facility, he shows me a section of corrugated steel which has been punctured and shredded. “A mortar attack,” he says, “imagine what this would do to a man.” The crossing is peppered with concrete and steel shelters for the workers to use in case of attack. Kerem Shalom has been closed several times in the last year but as Amos tells me, rocket attacks are not always part of the anti-Israeli ideology of Hamas. “Sometimes it's purely business. If someone in Gaza city wants to drive up prices, a rocket attack on Kerem Shalom will result in the closure of the crossing and prices will go up in Gaza, it's a simple case of supply and demand.”

It is the view of the Israelis that mismanagement on the Gazan side is the root cause of any shortages within the strip. “We have the capacity to handle 300 to 350 double truckloads a day here, but the average is about 160. We are also using a conveyor belt for transferring grain. Why is the capacity of this place being under-used so much if there are supposed to be so many shortages on the other side?” asks Amos. The shortfall in the truckloads going through Kerem Shalom also points to the remarkable continuing success of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, the preferred route for cheap goods and contraband merchandise.

As another flotilla sets sail for Gaza, the confrontation between the Strip and Israel is set for yet another long hot summer. The Israeli naval blockade, while a legal military strategy, has been a public relations disaster for the Israelis and the words 'Gaza' and 'prison' have, rightly or wrongly, become part of international lexicon when referring to the problems there. The recent opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has not had the impact anticipated, with frequent closures and multiple restrictions leading to frustration from the Palestinian side.The fact remains that until there is a change in Hamas' destructive ideology towards Israel there will likely be very little change in how Israel deals with Gaza, the current plight of both Gazans in extreme poverty and Israelis who live under the constant threat of rocket attack will continue and Kerem Shalom will continue to betray it's direct English translation as 'vineyard of peace.'

Ruairi Kavanagh is the Editor of SIGNAL, a journal for officers in the Irish Defence Forces.

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