Building supplies to repair housing interiors entered Gaza on Thursday for the first time since Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, less then two days since the current cease-fire went into effect. Quantities of window glass and ceramic tiles rolled into the Strip from Israel on trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
It is expected that cement and iron for housing reconstruction will soon follow, first under the auspices of an international organization and after that via the free market, said Ami Shaked, who oversees the crossing.
The decision to allow cement to enter Gaza, even though it was used in the past to build attack tunnels, is part of the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement with Hamas.
Located on the Israeli-Gaza border not far from Egypt, Kerem Shalom is the sole commercial passageway into the Strip.
For the last seven weeks, only humanitarian goods such as food and medicine entered Gaza through this large open-air facility. No limits were placed on such goods, and Gaza received as much food as it needed during the war, Shaked said, even though Israeli and Palestinian workers operated under fire.
On Tuesday just before the start of the cease-fire, Hamas mortar attacks halted the transfer activity. Only 75 of the scheduled 217 trucks made it through a back-to-back system, whereby Israeli vehicles drop off goods that are then loaded onto Palestinian trucks.
“There were 20 rockets [and mortars] that fell inside and around [the crossing] in the last day before the cease-fire,” Shaked said.
Now, that the cease-fire is in effect, goods banned for the last seven weeks are heading into the Strip, he said.
On Thursday morning, the crossing burst back into life with deliveries that included school supplies, clothing, shoes, and toys.
“This is the first day we opened for everything,” said Shaked.
The large loading areas were stacked with supplies, such as big green generators, empty water storage tanks, tables and plastic chairs.
Shaked held up a list of goods requested by Gazans, to explain that it is the Palestinians who determine what items are trucked in.
“This list was written by the Palestinian side. They say what they want for today. Every day they supply us this list,” he said.
He cross-checks their list with one of his own, to make sure that none of the supplies can be used for military purposes.
A portion of the crossing, he said, was recently redesigned to allow for an increased volume of cooking gas. “We doubled the quantities,” Shaked.
Gasoline is too expensive for the Palestinians, so they have modified their cars to run on cooking gas, Shaked explained.
Until last October, Israel allowed in cement and iron for Gaza businesses, but that stopped after the IDF uncovered attack tunnels built with that material. From that point and until the war this summer, the only building items that entered Gaza were under the auspices of international organizations, Shaked said.
According to the United Nations some 16,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombardments during the war. There are estimates that 3.5 million tons of construction material could be needed to rebuild them.
The international community is gearing up to help Gaza rebuild, which would require a monitoring system to insure that cement and iron was used for those homes and not additional tunnels. Shaked expects that in the coming days cement will again enter Gaza under the supervision of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or the World Food Program.
Plans are being drawn up to keep track of the cement used for the free market construction industry, Shaked said.
But those plans will not be implemented until the final details of the cease-fire agreement are worked out.
His staff is already on alert for smuggled items, particularly since Egypt last year closed the tunnels under its Rafah border through which Palestinians use to sneak items into Gaza, Shaked said.
“We are almost the only way for goods to get into Gaza, so they [Palestinians] try daily to smuggle things,” he said.
“We found things that could be useful for the military industry. We found chemicals that could be used as rocket fuel. We even found a truckload of Hamas uniforms. They declared it as uniforms for schools. I would not want to send my son to this school,” Shaked said.
He talked as he strode through the crossing, wearing a blue baseball cap over his gray hair, which is pulled back into a pony tail.
He passed workers in bright yellow and orange vests, some of whom still wear flak jackets. They could be heard speaking Hebrew or Arabic.
Kerem Shalom is a place where Palestinians work together with Israelis, with the common purpose of keeping Gaza supplied, Shaked said. Still Hamas destroyed the crossing in 2008, with almost 2.5 tons of TNT, Shaked said.
“We were attacked in 2012 by the Egyptian jihadis. We have been attacked by mortars and rockets from Hamas,” Shaked said.
Fortunately, he added, he has trained his staff to work under fire, and he is thankful that in the last six years he has held his post, no one has died under his watch.
The relationship his crossing has with the people in Gaza, he said, is a utilitarian one.
“There is no trust between the sides,” said Shaked, although his workers and the Gaza contractors on the other side, who technically work for the PA, share the same mission.
“I do not expect compliments from the Palestinians,” he said, noting that they know he has the ability to supply them with what they want. He views his role to facilitate that, based on government dictates.
His crossing, he said, can handle as many goods as the international community can donate or the Palestinians can afford to pay for. “They need money to buy goods,” he said. When their access to funds increase, so will the volume of goods, Shaked said.
The passageway, he said, is focused mostly on one-way traffic into the Strip, because the government prohibits the sale of goods from Gaza in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The trucks are full when the they enter Gaza, but return with empty containers and flatbeds.
The initial cease-fire terms do not include plans for this to change, he said. Exports abroad are allowed, but only a few products are sent overseas from Gaza, he said.
The main issue now, he said, is to increase the volume of goods entering Gaza, particularly building material. This also means increasing the number of Palestinian workers on the Gaza side, including additional vehicles for them, Shaked said.
“We have to be ready for a new mission, that is ordered by our government. We are ready,” he said.
The crossing’s maximum capacity has not been reached, he said. When asked what that capacity was, Shaked smiled and said, “Please, challenge me.”