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The Palestinian Authority has rejected an Israeli offer to use the Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Gaza Strip for the passage of goods while the Karni crossing is closed, because of fear that a temporary arrangement might continue indefinitely.
"We are worried that this will become permanent," chief PA Negotiator Saeb Erekat, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. "I really urge the Israelis to stick to the agreement."
In November, a deal was brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice whereby the Karni crossing was to remain open, to allow Palestinian exports from Gaza - such as greenhouse produce - to make it to the Israeli and international markets. Karni was only to be closed by Israel in the event of an immediate security threat.
The Karni crossing was closed for three weeks in January after a series of attempted attacks by Palestinian terrorists nearby. It was shut down again in mid-February following an explosion that Israeli security officials believed was a terror-related "work accident" caused when a tunnel mined with explosives blew up prematurely.
Israeli officials said PA security officials failed to address the situation, forcing Israel to close down the crossing until the threat is lifted.
However, the Palestinian Authority said it saw no reason to keep the crossing closed, and accused Israel of collective punishment.
"The Israelis should not employ this collective punishment," said Erekat. "It has always been counter productive and it backfires," he said.
The Karni goods crossing, located in northern Gaza, is normally used for the entry of food products into Gaza and for Palestinian farmers to move their goods abroad. Before its closure, 600 loaded trucks passed through the Karni crossing every day, officials said.
Israeli officials said the PA's refusal of Israel's offer was politically motivated and damaged the economies of both parties. Erekat said it was Israel that "was politicizing the situation."
Israel security officials said that while there was no danger of starvation in the Gaza Strip, they believed that "within days," a shortage of fresh dairy, meat and fruit products would be felt.
"The proposal to open Kerem Shalom and alleviate the situation can be implemented immediately," Lt.-Col. Michael Cirulnik told the Post. He is in charge of coordinating financial issues between Israel and Gaza on behalf of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office.
Reports of a shortage of wheat and flour in the Strip proved false, said Cirulnik. He said he checked on Monday and discovered that there were enough stocks to last a month.
While the Kerem Shalom crossing was far smaller than Karni, it was capable of handling the movement of fresh food into Gaza and allowing local farmers to export the large quantities of flowers they plan to market in Europe, he said. "We have stressed to them that the crossing is capable of dealing with twoway traffic," he said.
Cirulnik said Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are suffering the effect of a political vacuum caused by the transition to a new Hamas-led government.
Cirulnik said Palestinian businessmen supported using Kerem Shalom and accused PA officials of hurting their own people.
"Those currently in [PA] government positions do not know if they will still be in their posts once a new government is formed, and therefore they prefer not to make any decisions," said Cirulnik. "When I asked a PA official what will happen when fresh dairy products run out in Gaza, he told me he was not concerned as his son drinks milk every day," he said.
"That is not acceptable," said an incensed Erekat, adding that Cirulnik "should know this was not the position of PA officials. He should know we care about Palestinian children and that the shortages affect everyone."
Cirulnik said he hoped the Karni crossing would reopen in a matter of days, but said that if the situation remained unchanged, perhaps international humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza would be willing to receive the goods via Kerem Shalom.
Meanwhile, an average of 4,000 Gazan laborers continue to enter Israeli via the Erez crossing each day. On Tuesday, 40 Palestinian farmers from Gaza were given permission to attend the Agricultural Fair in Tel Aviv, said Cirulnik.
Once the Karni crossing is reopened, the Sufa crossing farther south will automatically be opened for business, said Cirulnik. The Sufa crossing is used to bring mineral aggregates used in construction into Gaza, but cement has always transported through Karni, he said.