Gaza crossing crises: A litmus test for war?

Will Israel lift or continue its harshest restrictions on Gaza?

A member of the security forces of the Palestinian Authority gestures as a truck carrying goods arrives at Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Gaza Strip November 7, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
A member of the security forces of the Palestinian Authority gestures as a truck carrying goods arrives at Kerem Shalom crossing in the southern Gaza Strip November 7, 2017.
In June, Israel weighed a port project for Gaza in Cyprus that would ease the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip.
One month later, Israel has all but shut down the small 360-kilometer area that is home to 2 million Palestinians.
The difference is potentially one of war and peace. Last month, Israel weighed helping the US with a humanitarian plan for Gaza. This week the Defense Ministry is calculating whether or not to go to war.
For almost two decades, it has been possible to chart Israel’s relationship with Gaza, particularly its violent flare ups, by restrictions at the border crossings.
This Sunday, the Ministry of Defense will have to decide whether to extend the harshest set of restrictions it has leveled against Gaza since the 2014 war.
Last week, in an effort to force Hamas to halt its launching of rockets and makeshift incendiary weapons into Israel, it banned commercial goods. On Tuesday it halted until Sunday shipments of fuel and gas needed for electricity and cooking.
If those shipments are not renewed next week, according to the United Nations, Gaza hospitals and sanitation facilities will run out of their backup supplies.
As of now, only food and medicine can enter on a case-by-case basis, bringing Israel to one of the closet points it has ever been to actually imposing a blockade on Gaza.
For the last 11 years, Israel has attempted to oust Hamas by economically sanctioning its borders. In doing so it inadvertently gave its harshest foes perpetual fodder to paint the Jewish state as the evil villain in its battle against the terror group that forcibly seized power of the Strip in 2007.
The Gaza drama cannot be divorced from the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus of the drama is often on the possibility of a peace-deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
But in the last 11-years the harshest outbreaks of violence have been between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which have fought no less than three wars.
Israeli Gaza border-crossing sanctions were at the heart of those wars. This latest round marks the first time that the violence – which began in March and intensified this month – was not sparked primarily by Israeli restrictions at the crossings.
Instead, it followed a period of harsh PA restrictions aimed at unseating Hamas from Gaza. Israel in contrast did not crack down this year on the movement of goods and people into Gaza, which in the first half of 2018 had dropped slightly but was still significantly higher than it had been prior to the 2014 war with Hamas.
But once Israel this month helped shut down the small 360-square kilometer piece of land that is home to two million Palestinians, it placed the crossings once again at the heart of the storm.
IT COULD be argued that the area, which also borders Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, has always been a symbolic bellwether of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Prior to the Six Day War, Gaza was controlled by Egypt. But after it was captured by Israel along with the Sinai, it had no borders. Residents could drive to the beach in Tel Aviv and vice versa. Israel’s control of the Gaza sky and seas was purely for military purposes.
Gaza’s first actual border since that war came about as a result of the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1982.
When Egypt set up its border apparatus, it placed a border-control point in the town of Rafah. Pedestrian and commercial traffic at Rafah was controlled on the Israeli side by Israel’s Airport Authority.
Until the outbreak of the first intifada in the late 1980s, Israel didn’t worry about the line between its sovereign territory and Gaza, which was under its military and civil rule. And even then, it didn’t do so right away.
In 1991 it created a system of travel permits for Gaza residents. This was followed in 1995 by an electronic fence, with two crossing: Erez for people and Karni for goods.
A number of other minor passages were also created. One was at Nahal Oz for fuel, another at Sufa for gravel and a backup option at Kerem Shalom should Karni be closed.
But the issue of restrictions only came into play after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000.
Within half a year, Palestinians in Gaza had begun to launch mortars against Israel’s southern city of Sderot and the Gaza settlements. They also carried out a number of suicide bombings and even attacked a US convoy of diplomats.
Israel restricted border movement in response, with the number of pedestrians crossing dropping from a monthly average of half a million people in 2000 to only 31,500 by 2005, a reduction of almost 94%.
For a brief moment in 2005, Israel and the international community dreamed that economic peace would follow the Disengagement in which the Jewish state unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, demolishing its 21 settlements there.
Plans were drawn up for an industrial park at the Erez crossing – and there was even an initial belief that the crossings would be proper border terminals, under the control of the Ministry of Interior.
The carefully orchestrated 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between the Jewish state and the Palestinian Authority that followed the Disengagement, created a dual monitoring system at the Gaza-Israel crossings, with the support of the European Union and the United States. Israel also created, with the help of the EU, a monitoring system at Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza.
BUT THEN Hamas won the January 2006 elections. Palestinians in Gaza kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June of that year; he was not released until 2011. In 2007, Hamas ousted Fatah in a bloody coup.
Each crisis was followed by border restrictions. The agreement broke down all together after the Hamas coup, including the EU Border Assistance Mission’s exit from the scene.
An ad-hoc system has been in place since then between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza that allows the transport of goods into the Strip – but the flow was below the 2007 level until the aftermath of the 2014 war.
Karni, which had been the main commercial crossing, was closed after the Hamas coup. Palestinian attacks against it and resulting security issues ensured that it was permanently shut down.
The number of crossings was condensed and Kerem Shalom was transformed into the main commercial crossing. Erez remained the sole pedestrian crossing between Israel and Gaza.
Israel put in place a policy with respect to Gaza in which it wanted it to subsist, but not flourish.
In the first half of 2007, for example, a monthly average of 12,600 people crossed through Erez, with that number dropping to 1,800 after that, according to UN data (all figures rounded off).
In 2013, the monthly average was about 5,700, but that rose in 2015 to 15,000. It dropped in 2017 back down to 6,900 but has risen sharply in the first half of this year to 10,500.
Similarly with regard to truckloads of supplies into Gaza, the monthly average in the first half of 2017, was 11,000 truckloads, dropping to 2,500 in the second half, according to the UN.
The monthly average in 2013 was 5,600, rising to almost 10,000 in 2017. But that number began to drop in the spring after Hamas-led violence at the Gaza border and flaming kites began to burn acres of Israeli fields and forests, reducing the June average to 6,600.
Egypt’s Rafah crossing has not been an alternative, because it was never designed for commercial activity and has been opened only intermittently. In May Egypt reopened the crossing, along with a gate for the limited transfer of commercial goods. But this week, it shut it down briefly again for a day, and has only partially reopened it.
Now Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has virtually shut everything down until Hamas stops its aerial attacks.
It was one of the opening salvos of a potential new war with Gaza. If the restrictions are prolonged, it will likely only increase Hamas incitement to violence and provide the international community with additional ammunition to paint the Palestinians in Gaza as the victims and Israel as the aggressor.