Exclusive: Israel, Palestinians urge Turkey to help at Gaza crossings

Israeli and Palestinian officials have asked Ankara to consider getting involved in commercial projects in the West Bank and along the Gaza border, Turkish officials told The Jerusalem Post this week. The projects would be similar to the one Ankara wanted to build at the Erez Crossing in 2006, which has since gone into "deep freeze." The Turkish officials said that the main commercial Gaza passageway at Karni, which has been closed since June 12 for all but grain transfers, was one of the locations mentioned. They added, however, that this was not the focus of the talks. According to the officials, the requests were transferred by the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv to Ankara for discussion. The requests come amid appeals by international organizations and the United Nations to open Karni to full capacity. The groups have pointed to a World Bank Report issued last week, which showed that in the previous month, 3,190 businesses have closed down, forcing 65,000 people out of work. "It is extremely urgent. You are talking about the total collapse of the Gaza economy," said Bassim Khoury, head of the Palestinian Federation of Industries at a Jerusalem press conference Sunday. Karni has been closed for security and technical reasons since Hamas took over Gaza last month, leaving Fatah unable to man and secure the crossing on the Palestinian side. In seeking a solution, Israeli and Palestinian businessmen have asked Turkey to get involved as a third party, said Khoury. They have also spoken with them about security issues at the crossing, he said. "It is an idea, that we as the private sector, have addressed to the Turks. We asked them would you be interested in helping us do this thing. You [Turkey] are a party that is acceptable to the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. Khoury noted, however, that "it is still in the exploratory stage." He added that it was his understanding that Turkey was interested in investing in the area. "Given the urgency of the situation, we are speaking with anyone who is willing to listen. The Turks are willing to listen," said Khoury. In January 2006, just prior to Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul signed separate joint declarations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem and Ramallah governing a Turkish role in resurrecting the Erez industrial area. Under the plan, the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) would manage the Erez industrial zone. Plants were to be built in the area with major Turkish investment, and manufactured goods would be able to enter the EU, US and even Persian Gulf countries duty-free. The hope was that both Palestinian and Israeli businessmen would also invest in this area which, before the outbreak of Palestinian violence in September 2000, provided employment for thousands of Palestinian workers. However, following Hamas's victory in the elections and its recent takeover of Gaza, Turkish officials admitted that the idea had been put on hold. According to the officials, both Israelis and Palestinians were interested in perhaps setting up this model, or something similar, elsewhere. One of the issues surrounding the original project had to do with who would secure the area, with some talk of private Turkish security companies taking on the task. The officials said there had been some talk recently of sending Turkish advisors to help train Palestinians at the crossings in Gaza, but that there was no talk of sending Turkish forces to oversee the border crossings. Gaza businessman Nasser S. El Helou told The Jerusalem Post that another idea that had been floated to secure the crossings was the creation of a non-sectarian Palestinian force that belonged to neither Fatah or Hamas. He added that he believed Hamas would be amenable to such a solution, because it supported opening Karni. Khoury said that this kind of private operation at the passages was already happening in an ad hoc way. "The owners of the goods are the ones securing the goods," he said. But Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the coordinator of government activities in the PA territories, said that he didn't believe a private force could adequately secure the border crossing. As a first step, he said, Hamas has to stop firing mortar shells at the operational crossings. Since the closure of Karni, Israel, the PA, and international groups have worked to allow basic food supplies, animal feed and limited commercial products into Gaza through the alternative crossings at Kerem Shalom and Sufa. Some 1.1 million of the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on food handouts from the United Nations that come through these crossings.Dror said that the capacity of the passages has not been maximized because of Hamas's mortar attacks, particularly at Kerem Shalom. Israel wants to help the people in Gaza, but "we are not a suicidal nation," he said. Karni, he said, is more difficult to secure and needs a high level of coordination on the other side - impossible now that Gaza is run by Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist. But at the press conference, his claim was disputed by Sari Bashi who is the director-general of Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. The problem is not security at Karni, she said. "The problem is that Israel is not trying." She said that the move had more to do with Israel's diplomatic policy toward Hamas. "The people of Gaza are not pawns in a political game," she said. She and others at the conference said that even at full capacity, Kerem Shalom and Sufa are no substitute for Karni when it comes to the Palestinian economy. Michael Bailey of Oxfam said his international relief organization was asking "the Quartet to call for an immediate cessation of the economic closures," particularly at Karni, when the Quartet convenes later this week. He and others at the press conference asked Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to keep the matter at the top of his agenda during future meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It isn't enough to just let food and basic supplies into Gaza, said Bailey. "Commercial imports and exports are just as much a part of the humanitarian economy as food and medicine," he said. The other crossing that has been closed is the pedestrian one at Rafah, which borders Gaza and Egypt. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, 0Fatah's Force 17, which manned the crossing and the European Union, which monitored it have withdrawn. The EU is not interested in returning without Fatah, and Egypt is among those who have refused to reopen the passage, leaving thousands of Palestinians stranded on the other side. In the interim, Erez has been open to limited pedestrian traffic from Israel into Gaza and the transfer of medical patients and supplies.