At 9 a.m. on Monday, a warning siren sent workers at the Kerem Shalom crossing – the sole entry point for commercial goods into Gaza – scattering for cover.
“Mortars were fired at the eastern part of the crossing point,” says Ami Shaked, who oversees the large concrete compound located at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, not far from Rafah and the Egyptian border. “Unfortunately we work under fire.”
Flak jackets are standard at the crossing, which has been targeted by Palestinians in Gaza multiple times a day since Operation Protective Edge began in July.
“Even at this moment, a mortar could fall and people would be wounded while undertaking a humanitarian mission for the people of Gaza,” he tells visiting journalists less than two hours after the siren went off. “It’s not a normal situation.”
Shaked, whose long gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail, is dressed casually in a checkered gray shirt that’s open at the collar. He wears sunglasses and a navy-blue baseball cap. But he is all business as he oversees the passage of over 200 tons of goods, including flour, rice, beans, fruit, medicine, generators and cooking gas, into Gaza.
As he speaks, Israeli trucks line up along the single lane leading to the crossing. They drop their wares into an openair storage area that looks like a large parking lot flanked by concrete boulders. It is closed to the Gaza side.
When the Israeli workers are done unloading, the storage area is opened to empty trucks that roll in from the Gaza side. Workers then help load the goods on the vehicles.
Among them is Abed Mansour of Gaza, who waits for the moment when he can begin moving supplies. He has worked at the crossing for three years and is happy to be able to draw a salary, he says.
Shaked, who speaks Arabic, says he knows the employees at the crossing on both sides of the wall. When he speaks to them, he says, “I hear how bad things are in Gaza. A lot of areas are without electricity or water.”
The amount of commercial and humanitarian supplies that enter the Gaza Strip, he says, is determined by the Palestinians.
They set the level of demand and Israel meets it.
But that is for food and basic supplies. Obviously, there are commercial items, like cement, which at this point are banned from the Strip.
Cement is what was used to build the terrorist tunnels.
Sari Bashi, head of Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, says the immediate issues in Gaza are not the passage of food, but the host of problems caused by the conflict, including a lack of water, electricity and an inability to properly distribute the food. And that is only the start of the subsistence problems, she says, and does not even begin to address what is needed to restore normal life.
Kerem Shalom was initially designed as a secondary transit point for goods that could augment or be used instead of the larger Karni crossing at the northern edge of the strip. But after Hamas took over the territory in a bloody 2007 coup, Karni was closed for security reasons, as were a number of smaller crossings, such as Sufa and Nahal Oz. All were replaced by Kerem Shalom, which in spite of the danger of mortar and rocket fire has been deemed the safest passage point because it is far away from populated areas.
With the Israeli sea blockade, there are only two other ways in and out of the Gaza Strip. One is the Rafah crossing, along the Egyptian border at the far south. That crossing has been closed since July 2013 except for a limited amount of pedestrian traffic. At the far northern end of the strip is the Erez crossing point into Israel, also used for pedestrian traffic.
So Gaza’s only commercial lifeline runs through Kerem Shalom, its concrete lots, and down the narrow roads that lead in and out.
At present, Shaked’s only goal is to make sure that basic goods get into Gaza despite the mortar and rocket fire. The mission is so important, he says, that religious members of his staff have worked on Shabbat to keep Gaza supplied.
Still, violence can and does interrupt this mission. On Friday, the suicide bomber attack that killed three soldiers occurred just a short distance away. The crossing was immediately closed for safety reasons.
“This place was like hell. It was under fire. There were a lot of explosions and mortars and a lot of shooting,” Shaked says. But it did not deter the crossing from reopening as soon as it could.
“My target is to move humanitarian aid to the Palestinian side. This is what I do. It doesn’t matter if it’s under fire or not under fire,” he explains.
One journalist asks him if he thinks the Palestinians appreciate their efforts.
“We don’t ask them to thank us for this work,” Shaked says.
Just after the journalists leave, another warning siren rings out at the crossing.
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