Cabinet: Gaza crossings tied to Schalit deal

Security cabinet to IDF: React to all Gaza aggression; Israel won't allow cement, steel to cross border.

Netanyahu cabinet meeting 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu cabinet meeting 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The security cabinet decided on Wednesday that any opening of crossings into the Gaza Strip would be linked to progress in the case of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. In doing so, the cabinet was essentially endorsing a similar decision on the matter made by former prime minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet. Israel wants the Red Cross to be granted access to Schalit, or to at least get some sign of life from him. With the US breathing heavily down Israel's neck to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip, Wednesday's security cabinet meeting focused on ways to allow more goods and material into the area without endangering Israel's security. The discussion was part of a larger conversation on the situation in the Gaza Strip, including Monday's foiled terrorist attack near the Karni crossing, and the fate of Schalit. Following the meeting, a statement was issued that read, "Israel views Hamas responsible for all aggressive actions against Israel coming from the Gaza Strip. The cabinet directed the IDF to respond to all aggressive actions against Israel from Gaza." Regarding Schalit, the security cabinet - in its first announcement regarding him since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed Hagai Hadas two weeks ago as his envoy on the matter - issued a statement saying the "relevant authorities" had been directed to do everything possible to bring about his release. The insertion of Schalit in the statement, according to a source in Jerusalem, was meant to indicate that the the fate of the kidnapped soldier is a critical element in determining Israel's policy toward Gaza. Regarding the border crossings, this - along with the settlement construction and two-state issue - was one of three major sticking points between Israel and the US during Netanyahu's visit to Washington last month. US officials made clear to the prime minister that they were unhappy with what they considered to be "foot-dragging" on the opening of the crossings and the reconstruction of Gaza, and wanted to see more movement on the issue. The issue was also raised by the US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell in his meetings in Jerusalem on Tuesday. The US has made clear it wants to see more goods and materials allowed into Gaza to enable reconstruction. Nevertheless, defense officials continue to oppose bringing concrete and steel into the Gaza Strip, arguing that it would be used not only to reconstruct buildings, but also to build arms smuggling tunnels and restore Hamas's rocket-building capacity. Israel was unlikely to reopen the crossings unless a Palestinian Authority border monitoring unit could be set up on the Gaza side to coordinate the passage of goods and people with Israel, a defense source told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. The PA unit would have to be able to work without coming under attack from Hamas, the source added. Asked to respond to US pressure on Israel to reopen the crossings, the source said, "If you pay attention, there is a catch. The US is conditioning the opening of crossings on coordination between Israel and the Palestinians." "We closed the Karni crossing because of an inability to coordinate with the other side. There must be coordination," he said. What was most relevant for the Gazan economy was "not what goes into Gaza but what comes out of it to Israel," the source stressed. "Currently, Israel is not buying a thing from Gaza. Gazans are living on benefits, despite setting up some sort of internal market," he said. "During the good old days," Israel was a huge market for Gaza, and was the main destination for goods such as clothes, sun-heated water tanks and floor tiles, he added. When the crossings were open, 100,000 Gazans worked in Israel every day, where they earned five times as much as they could in Gaza. The PA then received the income tax on the workers' salaries. "This trade was a large source of income. It's not clear that Gaza can go back to exporting to Israel, because it has been replaced by other suppliers, such as China," the source said. US, UN and European efforts to put together a mechanism that would enable goods and material into the Gaza Strip without strengthening Hamas have so far been unsuccessful. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, continues to maintain that there is no humanitarian crisis inside the Gaza Strip. At a cabinet meeting two weeks ago he said that more material was entering Gaza now than was the case during the cease-fire that existed there last year. Netanyahu said at that meeting that Israel was "continuously asked to make things easier for the population in Gaza, to let in materials and equipment, but we have security interests there." He said that a balance needed to be found between "making things easier for the population and making it harder for Hamas to gain more weapons." That sentiment was reflected in the statement issued after Wednesday's meeting. "The security cabinet," the statement read, "was studying additional ways to make things easier for the Palestinian population inside the Gaza Strip, while maintaining Israel's security interests."