Israel reopens Gaza’s Kerem Shalom crossing: A premature move?

The decision came after a few days of relative quiet, and following last week’s heavy exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel.

By TERRANCE J. MINTNER/THE MEDIA LINE
August 16, 2018 13:55
4 minute read.

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce, August 15, 2018 (Reuters)

Israel lets food, goods back into Gaza as Egypt pushes truce, August 15, 2018 (Reuters)

 
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Israel decided to reopen the Kerem Shalom Crossing into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday morning, following a few days of relative quiet around the enclave. 

The crossing’s main purpose is for the transit of industrial or commercial goods into Gaza. Israel halted shipments of fuel and gas across the border a few times in July and August, citing the launch of numerous rockets, mortars and incendiary objects (kites and balloons) from the enclave into Israel.

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Along with opening the crossing, Israel also extended the permitted fishing zone for Gaza fishermen from three to 9 nautical miles (about 17 km.) from the coast. 

The Israeli military announced the moves Wednesday, following Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's statements on Tuesday that Israeli restrictions would be eased if the relative calm would prevail.

“Maintaining the quiet is first and foremost in the interest of Gaza residents,” Liberman said on Tuesday, after convening with high-ranking defense officials.

“Following the decision of Defense Minister Liberman, in consultation with the Chief of the General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the main cargo crossing into Gaza, the Kerem Shalom crossing, will be re-opened this morning for full activity,” the army said in a statement on Wednesday.

In recent months, the Israel-Gaza border has been the scene of clashes between protesters and IDF soldiers. The Hamas-ruled enclave has intermittently fired off rockets and mortars into Israel, including last week’s barrage of over 200 projectiles. On top of that, Palestinians have been carrying out arson attacks on a near-daily basis through the use of incendiary kites and balloons. Over 7,000 acres of land have already been scorched as a result of the attacks, resulting in millions of shekels in damages.

Apart from the last few days, these attacks have been ongoing since March 30, when the first “March of Return” protest was held. Thereafter, weekly demonstrations as well as skirmishes along the border have resulted in over 150 Palestinian deaths, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Many of those killed, the IDF alleges, were trying to breach the border fence, throwing makeshift bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers, while burning tires to create a smokescreen. Hamas has confirmed that many fighters in its ranks were among the dead.

Israel has often responded to these attacks with targeted air and artillery strikes on Hamas targets in the Strip.

In recent days, there has also been much talk of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Israel, however, maintains that no such ceasefire has been inked; while Hamas has trumpeting a diplomatic breakthrough mediated by Egypt and other regional players.
With regard to the recent calm, Israeli officials have stressed that “quiet will be met by quiet.”

Analysts are now wondering if the IDF’s decision to open the crossing is premature given last week’s heavy barrage of rockets. Is the Israeli army acting too quickly in rewarding Hamas for just a few days of relative quiet? 

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Liberman said it is important to remember why the last few days have been the quietest since March 30, the start of the "March of Return" protests. The reason for the relative calm, he explained, is that Hamas has taken significant hits and understands that the next conflict with Israel would involve taking much tougher hits.

Israeli officials have been reiterating that Gazans will only benefit from quiet and a cessation of violence, not a return to Hamas’ violent tactics.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, a former and long-serving commander in the IDF, told The Media Line that opening the border is a step toward creating stability in Gaza.

“This is in Israel’s interest as reaching an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is far-fetched.”
From a strategic point of view, he added, “Israel’s main threat is the two-state solution along the 1967 borders,” explaining that Tel Aviv and Haifa, for example, would be indefensible without some Israeli control over the West Bank.  

“Israel’s main national interests are a united Jerusalem, and 2 or 3 million Jews living in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank],” Hacohen said.

Hamas, he added, could “act reasonably in accepting an equilibrium. I do not believe in agreements and grand ceremonies, but in a practical equilibrium of power. And in a realist sense, this is what could be expected from Hamas.”   

Dr. Seth J. Frantzman, Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Research and Analysis, told The Media Line that opening the border was not premature as it is in Israel’s interest for the Gaza Strip not to become an economic or humanitarian disaster.

“Opening the Kerem Shalom Crossing is like opening a release valve,” Frantzman said. “But at the end of the day, we are talking about almost 2 million people living in the Strip. Do basic needs like fuel and gas really weaken Hamas? It is not really clear what it does. After 11 years of the blockade, I don’t see Hamas as necessarily that much weaker.

“We are looking at almost 5-6 months of conflict in which over 1,000 people have been injured and about 150 people killed, on both sides. Obviously, the idea is to stop it and come to some sort of agreement, even if it is off-the-record. There is also a lot of pressure from Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. to create stability in the Strip.”

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