Gaza locked in despite truce

Palestinians line up for drinking water in front of a UN water station in the Gaza Strip, 3 July 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

CAIRO (IPS) - Despite a torrent of mutual recriminations, the fragile truce between Israel and Palestinian resistance faction Hamas survived into its third week. Israel, however, has been slow to fulfill its pledge — as laid down in an Egypt-brokered ceasefire agreement — to allow desperately-needed humanitarian supplies into the outdoor prison that is the Gaza Strip.

“Repeated closures of the border crossings [by Israel] … are indicative of Israel’s lack of seriousness regarding the Egyptian ceasefire agreement,” Ismail Haniyeh, head of Gaza’s ruling Hamas government, told reporters Friday on 4 July. “If the ceasefire is to survive, Israel must open the crossings [into the Gaza Strip] and lift its siege.”

After several months of indirect negotiations in Cairo, Israel and Hamas — along with smaller Palestinian resistance factions — accepted a tahdia, or “calming” of hostilities, early last month. Despite stated reservations by both sides, the truce officially took effect on 19 June.

The arrangement calls for a halt to Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the cessation of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from positions within the strip. The ceasefire, however, does not extend to the West Bank, governed by the US-backed Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Most importantly for Hamas — and the Gaza Strip’s roughly 1.5 million people — the scheme also calls for the gradual reopening of border crossings into and out of the territory. Along with five Gaza-Israel crossings, this includes the flashpoint Rafah terminal, which represents the strip’s sole transit point into Egypt and the outside world beyond.

Ever since Hamas wrested control of Gaza one year ago (after winning elections in 2006), Israel has kept its shared crossings with the enclave hermetically sealed. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, citing the lack of a formal treaty regulating border protocol, put the finishing touches on the blockade by sealing the Rafah terminal as well.

Backed by the US and the EU, the de facto siege has destroyed the Gaza Strip’s economy and deprived much of its population of vital commodities, including foodstuffs and medicine. The situation has prompted a number of commentators to describe the embattled territory as the world’s largest concentration camp.

Shortly after the ceasefire took effect on 19 June, Israel reportedly opened four of its Gaza crossings — the Erez, Karni, Nahal Aouz and Soufa terminals — to limited traffic. They were closed again 24 June, however, after Palestinian resistance faction Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Israeli town of Sderot in retaliation for the killing of four of its leaders in the West Bank.

Although the borders were reopened four days later, Israel resealed them again last week. According to Israeli officials, the closures came in response to another two rocket salvoes — which caused no human or material damage — from positions in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian resistance groups unanimously denied responsibility for the alleged attacks.

According to Abdelaziz Shadi, head of the Israeli Studies Program at Cairo University, Israel is exploiting sporadic rocket attacks — real or imagined — to justify its continued stranglehold on the Hamas-ruled enclave.

“Israel could easily determine the source of these rockets and punish the perpetrators,” Shadi told IPS. “Instead, it prefers to collectively punish the strip’s entire population by depriving it of food, medicine and fuel.

“The ongoing border closures confirm that, in regards to the Gaza Strip, Israel is still an occupying power — despite its so-called withdrawal from the territory in 2005,” he added.

According to Israeli officials quoted on Wednesday last week, a total of 150 trucks laden with essential supplies have been allowed into the strip since the ceasefire took effect. This figure, however, has not been independently verified.

Traffic across the Egypt-Gaza border by way of the Rafah crossing, meanwhile, has been no more profuse.

For three days last week, from Tuesday (1 July) to Thursday (3 July), Egyptian authorities opened the Rafah terminal to a limited number of passengers. But of some 2,000 people scheduled to make the crossing, including a number of medical patients, only a few hundred were let through.

“Due to conflicting passenger lists and bureaucratic hold-ups, only about 300 people were finally allowed through,” Hatem al-Buluk, journalist and resident of al-Arish, located roughly 40 kilometers from Rafah, told IPS.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Palestinians — frustrated by lengthy delays — pushed through to the Egyptian side of the crossing by force. They were met by Egyptian security personnel who blocked the entrance and eventually employed water hoses to turn back stone-throwing crowds.

“Palestinians, infuriated by the never-ending bureaucratic delays and scorching heat, stormed the crossing,” said al-Buluk. “Egyptian security, fearing a repeat of January’s border breach, quickly arrived to stop them from getting through to Egyptian territory.”

In late January, more than half a million Palestinians flocked into Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula following the partial destruction of the 14-kilometer border wall. Most seized the opportunity to stock up on essential supplies before returning home to Gaza.

The border was resealed ten days later, amid limited clashes between Palestinians and Egyptian authorities. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit infamously declared at the time that anyone approaching the sensitive border without permission “would have his legs broken.”

This time around, however, crisis was averted when Hamas-affiliated police officers, in cooperation with Egyptian border authorities, convinced angry crowds to pull back from the Egyptian side of the terminal. After being closed briefly following the disturbance, the crossing was re-opened to limited traffic later that day.

“Because Hamas is now coordinating with Egyptian authorities at the border, I doubt we’ll see a repeat of January’s breach,” said al-Buluk.

Hamas officials, meanwhile, continue to urge Cairo to adopt a workable border protocol to ensure that the crossing remains open on a permanent basis.

“All parties concerned with the Rafah crossing — my government, the PA and the Europeans (mandated with observer status under an earlier border treaty) — are awaiting a call from Egypt to discuss appropriate mechanisms for reopening the Egyptian-Palestinian crossing,” Heniya said on Friday, 4 July.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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