Israel, PA look at Gaza crossing options

Officials float ideas to open one or more of the four Gaza crossings without losing control to Hamas.

sufa 224.88 (photo credit: IDF [file])
sufa 224.88
(photo credit: IDF [file])
Amid increasing international impatience with the policy of isolating Gaza, both Israeli and Palestinian officials are floating ideas to enable the opening of one or more of the four crossings from Israel into the Strip. "There has been an evolution in the international community on how to handle the Gaza Strip," a Western diplomatic official said Thursday. "There is a consensus that the current strategy that is being pursued is not achieving that much that is positive, whether for Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Egypt." The official's comments dovetailed with criticism coming from the European Union and the US State Department that the policy of economically squeezing Gaza in the hope that this would weaken Hamas has failed, and that the Islamist group is only becoming more deeply entrenched. The official said "creative" ways of enabling the Palestinian Authority to retake control of the crossings were being discussed, as well as whether some international presence could assist in achieving that goal. The official would not go into the details of what kind of international presence was being mooted, but defense officials said that PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad had raised the possibility of creating a force of international monitors that would assist in managing and securing the crossings. Fayad has been pushing for the deployment of PA forces at the crossings as a way for Fatah to return to Gaza, which Hamas took over in June 2007. This idea has been endorsed by the Middle East Quartet, which at a meeting in December encouraged contacts between Israel and the PA to consider Fayad's proposal for the PA to assume responsibility for the Gazan side of the crossings. Fayad's plan entails the deployment of the Force 17 Presidential Guard - loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas - at the various crossings. Israel has consistently opposed the idea, saying that the PA could not effectively secure the crossings on its own, and that Israeli inspectors would be at risk. Israel is also skeptical that Hamas would allow the PA to control the crossings. If it did so, the further fear is, this would be only be with the understanding that Hamas, not the PA, would control what entered and exited Gaza. One Israeli official said that while it would clearly be better if the PA were in charge of the crossings and had a foothold inside the Gaza Strip, no one had yet provided a satisfactory suggestion for making that possible. The official said that Israel would not enter into a situation where it would be seen as cooperating with Hamas in any way, unless that organization accepted the international community's three conditions: recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Having the PA at the crossings with only a "wink and a nod" from Hamas, he said, would not be acceptable. The official also said that a PA presence at the crossings should in no way be seen as a panacea, since the PA was there until June 2007, and the situation was anything but ideal. Defense officials, meanwhile, expressed skepticism concerning the chances that an international force would be willing to deploy inside Gaza without Hamas's consent. The likelihood of Hamas agreeing to such a deployment, they added, was very slim. "Which country would be willing to risk its soldiers' lives in Gaza," asked one official who is involved in running the crossings. Fayad's plan, the officials said, fit into another being drawn up by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i to consolidate the crossings into the Gaza Strip and to move them away from the border in an effort to minimize the chances of successful terrorist attacks against them. There are currently four crossings from Israel into Gaza - Karni, Erez, Kerem Shalom and Sufa. According to Vilna'i's proposal, Israel would dismantle Kerem Shalom and Karni, which has been closed for almost a year due to terror threats, and instead build one major crossing at Sufa and move it at least one kilometer away from the Gaza border. Work on the plan to consolidate the crossings and move them began shortly after a car bomb attack against the Kerem Shalom Crossing in April, in which 11 soldiers were wounded.