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(photo credit: AP [file])
The Karni crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel was expected to reopen on Tuesday morning, despite terror alerts. The crossing was open for less than an hour on Monday, after two months during which there was almost no traffic permitted to pass.
The security establishment was considering the potentially dangerous move in order to relieve severe shortages of staple goods that have spread throughout the Strip.
The manner and duration of the opening was expected to be determined according to the level of security observed at the site in the morning, Army Radio reported.
On Monday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, fearing a humanitarian crisis, decided to briefly open the crossing into the Gaza Strip to facilitate the transfer of basic goods to the Palestinians. But while Karni, the main cargo crossing into Gaza, was scheduled to operate for three hours, defense officials citing security warnings decided to close the crossing less than an hour after it had opened.
The Palestinians claim that the closure has led to shortages of food and other goods in the Gaza Strip. According to the Palestinians, the crossing was opened for a mere 25 minutes on Monday - enough time to transfer Diet Coke, tea, potato chips, chocolate, sugar and 10 tons of wheat into Gaza.
Defense officials said it was unclear if and when Karni would reopen and that it depended mostly on the Palestinians. "They need to help us eliminate the terror alerts," officials said. "If the Palestinians assist us in ensuring security at Karni we will be able to open the crossing."
Mofaz's decision to open Karni on Monday, diplomatic officials said, had nothing to do with a meeting held at US Ambassador Richard Jones's residence in Herzliya Pituah on Sunday.
At the meeting, attended by Israeli, Palestinian, US, EU and Egyptian officials, it was decided to open Kerem Shalom for goods from Egypt into Gaza. That crossing did not open Monday as originally planned, and talks on opening that crossing are expected to resume Tuesday. Israeli security officials explained that Kerem Shalom did not open as planned due to technical and not security reasons.
Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav - Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories - denied Monday that the situation in Gaza had turned into a humanitarian crisis. Meeting with President Moshe Katsav on Monday, Mishlav said the Palestinians were responsible for their deteriorating situation.
"There is a shortage of basic goods but we have offered the Palestinians alternatives such as Kerem Shalom," he told Katsav. "It is the Palestinian's refusal to use our alternatives that has brought about the shortage in goods."
Israeli, Palestinian and US security officials also met at the Erez crossing Monday to discuss the various security issues at all of the crossings.
The 1994 Paris Protocols created a single customs union between Israel and the PA, which allowed goods to move between them tax-free. The accord harmonized the tax structure of Israel and the PA and provided for PA goods to be exported under the same conditions and in the same ships and airplanes as Israeli goods.
Undoing this envelope would have a devastating impact on the PA economy and is a possible lever Israel could use to combat a Hamas-led PA government that does not recognize Israel, renounce terrorism or accept previously signed agreements.
Defense Ministry officials were scheduled to meet with their PA counterparts on Monday at the Kerem Shalom crossing to prepare for its planned opening later in the day. Officials estimated that the PA's refusal to accept goods from Israel was motivated by "political considerations" and was an attempt to "hurt Israel." Before the meeting at Jones's residence, the PA adamantly refused to allow anything through the Kerem Shalom crossing.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, director of the Defense Ministry's Political Military Bureau, warned the PA at Sunday's meeting that Egypt was only capable of transferring 20 percent of the amount of goods Israel could transfer daily into the Gaza Strip.
"We warned them, but they were firm in their refusal," one official said.
Security officials warned against reopening Karni on Sunday, citing severe security alerts as the reason for the terminal's continued closure. The defense establishment, officials said, had obtained intelligence information regarding several terror cells planning attacks against the terminal.
Karni had become a primary target for terror groups, officials explained, since it was the only place where Israelis were stationed near the Gaza Strip. The warnings included tunnels terrorists were digging near Karni or plans to infiltrate a bomb into the terminal.
"Gaza is sealed and they can't succeed in infiltrating Israel, so they try to hit us at Karni," one official explained.
The PA rejected claims of terror alerts near Karni, which it said was Gaza's "oxygen pipe," and accused Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of closing the terminal for political purposes. Kerem Shalom, they said, was meant to serve as a pedestrian crossing and was unsuitable for the transfer of goods.
"There are no terror alerts at Karni," said Salim Abu Safiyyah, head of the PA Terminal and Border Security Department. "We dug around the terminal and did not find anything. This is all about politics."
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued a report Sunday stating that as a result of the extended closure of Karni "most bakeries in the Gaza Strip today are closed, because wheat flour stocks have finished. Bread is the staple food for 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza. There are long lines of people outside the few bakeries that still have limited stocks of bread and the bakeries are rationing bread to those waiting."
According to the report, the usual 30 to 60-day wheat stock kept in Gaza had been exhausted, and "other basic food commodities are in extremely short supply, including dairy products and fruit. Rice and sugar are selling at more than twice their normal price and are also very difficult to find in stores."
The OCHA report blamed the closing of Karni for the crisis, and said that Kerem Shalom did not have the capacity to deal with the amount of wheat that needed to be shipped into Gaza.
AP contributed to the report.