Gaza unlikely trade partner with Israel

Israel a top supplier to Hamas-ruled territory; flow of goods is growing

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KEREM SHALOM CROSSING, ISRAEL | Each day, dozens of trucks move food, consumer products and industrial materials into the Gaza Strip at this heavily fortified crossing, in an odd arrangement that has turned Israel into a key supplier to a territory governed by its bitter enemy Hamas.

Despite frequent fighting along this volatile border, business at the Kerem Shalom crossing has picked up greatly over the past 1 1/2 years, though it remains a fraction of historical standards. Israel says it plans a further expansion here by mid-2012.

The activity here shows how the fates of Gaza and Israel remain intertwined six years after Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the seaside strip.

Kerem Shalom - the sole cargo passage into Gaza - is an economic lifeline for the territory’s impoverished 1.6 million people, providing the vast majority of consumer goods.

For Israel, it is a key tool in maintaining a tense truce that has largely held up since a devastating Israeli military offensive in Gaza more than three years ago. With clashes taking place regularly along the volatile border, critics also accuse Israel of using commerce to control and even punish the area.

Kamil Abu Rukun, the senior Israeli Defense Ministry official who oversees all of the country’s border crossings with the Palestinians, rejected such notions. He said the development of the cargo terminal is a shared Israeli and Palestinian interest and that security concerns are the main factor limiting trade.

“These people have been connected to us for many years, with economic and business ties,” he said. “For humane and humanitarian reasons, we think we must let them get what they need.”

Increased prosperity in Gaza also could reduce militant activity, he said. “I believe that people who can make a decent living think about making a living and not about other things.”

This thinking represents a dramatic, if reluctant, turnabout by Israel, which along with Egypt clamped a tight blockade on Gaza after Hamas overran the area in June 2007. The blockade was meant to weaken Hamas but didn’t.

While the embargo crippled parts of Gaza’s economy, Hamas deepened its control, in part by smuggling goods and weapons through hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt that continue to thrive.

Israel changed its policy toward Gaza after a deadly June 2010 raid on an international flotilla trying to bust the blockade. Under heavy criticism, Israel lifted all restrictions on consumer goods, though it kept a ban on materials like cement and metals that it says could be used by Hamas to build fortifications or aid attacks on Israel.

In the meantime, Israel has closed three other cargo crossings into Gaza and consolidated all operations at the expanded Kerem Shalom facility.

Today, about 4,500 truckloads of goods go into Gaza each month. That’s higher than 2,500 truckloads before the flotilla raid, according to military and U.N. figures, but well below 2005 levels averaging 10,400 truckloads at all crossings each month.

Truckloads out of Gaza are minimal; Israel says that’s because it has to do even more stringent checks on outgoing traffic to prevent explosives from slipping into Israel.

Mr. Abu Rukun said that new equipment and technology will boost the flow of goods into Gaza by about 50 percent from current levels by mid-2012. He also expects exports to begin flowing more freely out of Gaza at that time.

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