June 5, 2006

Gaza-Israel border post: lifeline and bottle neck

By Luke Baker

KARNI CARGO CROSSING, Israel (Reuters) - If Gaza has a
choking point, it may be Karni.

The vast concrete and steel border post is the point
through which virtually all trade must pass between Israel and
Gaza, a strip on the Mediterranean where 1.4 million
Palestinians live.

Controlled by Israel, the crossing is, from the Palestinian
perspective, both a lifeline and a potential noose.

In the first four months of this year, Karni was closed for
58 days, or 53 percent of the time, according to the United
Nations, sharply curtailing activity in Gaza's moribund

The closures, Israeli officials say, were the result of
specific security threats, including an attempted attack using
twin 500 kg (1,100 lb) car bombs in late April.

"There is always a threat," Colonel Nir Press, an Israeli
Defense Force commander in charge of border crossings, said
during a recent visit to Karni.

"Terrorists are trying to work out the security of the
system all the time," he said, adding that sometimes toy guns
are placed inside goods leaving Gaza as militants try to work
out ways to smuggle weapons into Israel.

However, the closures have also coincided with the rise to
power of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that won Palestinian
elections in January and took office in March.

The United States, Israel and the European Union regard
Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, as a
terrorist organization and have pushed hard to cut off all
funding to the Palestinian Authority it now runs.

That has included severing payments to the Palestinian
government, which until a limited solution was found on Sunday,
had not paid salaries to its 165,000 employees for three


It has also, according to Palestinian businessmen and
foreign diplomats, meant closing Karni at crucial times, such
as when agricultural exports -- an essential foreign currency
earner -- need to get out for immediate shipment abroad.

One Gaza farm project that hoped to send tomatoes and
peppers to Europe failed to export 90 percent of its produce in
the first season because of closures, losing nearly $10
million, manager Ayed Abu Ramadan said last week.

When the crossing is open, it is often only partially so,
with many more truckloads flowing into Gaza than out. On one
day last week, about 300 truckloads went in and 90 came out, 60
of them empty, Israeli officials said. Most days fewer exit.

However, there are signs of change.

Since Amir Peretz, the leader of the relatively dovish
Labour Party, was appointed Israel's defense minister in early
May, he has pushed for more shipments to cross the border.

His policy shift appears a move to bring Israel into line
with a pledge made to the United States last November to allow
up to 150 truckloads to leave every day.

Exports remain a long way from that level, but the United
Nations, which has been pushing for Karni to be opened more
consistently to aide Gaza's economy is encouraged.

"We are seeing the beginning of an improvement, although it
remains to be seen if it's sustainable," David Shearer, the
head of the U.N.'s aid coordination office, told Reuters on
Monday. The U.N. is due to issue a new report on Karni on

Yet Palestinians remain worried, not only that the border
could quickly be closed again if there are security concerns,
but also because they still feel the flow is hand-to-mouth.

The director of Gaza's main hospital complained last week
of having only two days' worth of some medicines left, and
wondered what the priority for imports was. "I see Coca-Cola
coming in, but what about medicine," said Ibrahim el-Habbash.