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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce on Tuesday joined the growing list of politicians, academics and industry leaders demanding the government reopen the main terminal for the passage of goods between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip on June 12, the Karni crossing, which had served as the primary passageway of goods into and out of Gaza, has been open only for the transfer of humanitarian necessities as Israel and the PA continue to search for a viable alternative to Hamas personnel manning the border crossings. Prior to Hamas's violent takeover, the Fatah-led PA was responsible for operating the crossings.
"Opening the Karni crossing will greatly alleviate the level of distress that currently exists in the Gaza Strip," said FICC President Uriel Lynn. "It will be viewed as a humanitarian gesture and it will go a long way towards strengthening Israel's political status."
Lynn's comments come in the wake of a meeting last week at the FICC offices in Tel Aviv, between Israeli manufacturing representatives and a delegation of Gaza businessmen, to seek ways to restore trade between Israel and private sector businesses in the Gaza Strip to "acceptable" levels. Lynn called the meeting an "important step" and one which "signaled that Palestinian businessmen are serious about resuming trade, despite the difficulties that are faced by these individuals due to the closure of the Karni crossing."
Included in the delegation from Gaza was Muhammed Hilbani, the owner of a Gaza biscuit factory, who noted that since the Hamas takeover, his factory has been virtually shut down.
"I can't get any raw materials for my products and I can't keep my employees," said Hilbani, noting that he has had to lay-off much of his staff and has been begged by countless Gazans to hire them for much less than minimum wage.
According to Lynn, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have an obligation to do their utmost to open the crossing, if necessary by setting up a private security company. "They need to find an alternative to Hamas at the borders immediately. The government must work on establishing a company that can carry out the proper inspections and security checks, so that trade can resume."
The FICC said that since June 12, conditions inside the Gaza Strip have deteriorated rapidly. The number of unemployed has grown to 70,000; the export of flowers and vegetables to Europe via Israel has stopped, causing untold losses to farmers; more than one million pieces of clothing are awaiting shipment out of the Strip, sparking fears that lucrative foreign contracts will be lost, and the flow of raw materials needed for building projects and agriculture has ceased.
Because of all those factors, said Lynn, opening Karni was vital "in order to help pull the Gaza economy out of its downward spiral. If it isn't opened soon, the already very weak economy in the Gaza Strip will only get worse."
While Gazan businesses are suffering from the Karni closure, the damage is also being felt by Israeli exporters, especially small companies, which rely heavily on customers inside the Gaza Strip.
"The Palestinian Authority is the second largest export market of Israeli manufacturers, trailing only the US," Lynn noted to The Jerusalem Post.
Statistics provided by the Manufacturers Association of Israel note that the country conducts about $2.95 billion worth of trade, including imports and exports, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip each year.
"In 2006," said Dan Catarivas of the Manufacturers Association, "Israel exported about $120 million worth of products into Gaza, mostly textiles, metals, furniture and construction material, and while this may not seem like a lot, for those exporters who rely on trade with Gazan customers, Israel's current economic boycott of Hamas is crippling."