Friday, July 6, 2007

TEL AVIV — A fierce gunbattle yesterday between Israelis and Palestinians interrupted nearly a month of isolation for the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, sealed off from the world except for shipments of food and medicine from international donors.

At least 11 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli incursion deep into Gaza that included planes, tanks and bulldozers in a campaign against rocket attacks. Palestinians responded with mortar fire and by laying land mines, according to local press reports.

The battle marked one of the deadliest exchanges with Israel since Hamas gunmen drove the rival Fatah party out of Gaza last month.

Since then, the border crossing that is the main economic life line for 1.4 million Gazans has been closed to commercial traffic.

About 600 shipping containers destined for Gaza remain stranded in Israel, according to an Israeli business group, while prices on some goods have jumped as much as one-third because of shortages.

Israel has nearly sealed its borders with Gaza save for basic food and medical supplies meant to avert a humanitarian disaster.

“The landlord in Gaza is Hamas, and we’re not talking with them,” said Shady Yassin, an official at the Israeli army’s military liaison office with Gaza. “There is no one on the other side who can operate the [Karni] crossing.”

Israel has previously enforced painful closures at Karni, but never before has the crossing been shuttered to both imports and exports.

Before the Hamas takeover, the Gaza border crossings were secured by forces loyal to Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Fatah forces had backing from the U.S. and Europe.

With the collapse of the Fatah in Gaza, Israel lost an interlocutor on the Palestinian side to coordinate cross-border traffic.

Israel’s immediate task has been to prevent mass hunger and sickness — a scenario which would hurt its image abroad and risk a public health epidemic.

Almost daily, the Israeli military releases a list of humanitarian supplies allowed into Gaza. Moving any other type of goods is considered too high of a security risk.

Since withdrawing its ground forces from Gaza in 2005, Israel has said it isn’t responsible for the economic well-being of the Palestinians.

Israel’s Manufacturers Association recently issued a statement opposing an economic boycott against Gaza and has kept up contacts with business colleagues in Gaza who are growing more desperate.

“There is a major problem there about how to maintain economic life in a place that is all but sealed,” said Dan Catarivas, the head of foreign trade for the manufacturers association.

“I don’t think that it’s in the interest of anyone to see the economy of Gaza collapse. We think there’s still room for cooperation,” Mr. Catarivas said.

Beyond avoiding a humanitarian disaster, Israel hasn’t decided yet what type of economic relationship it wants with Hamas-controlled Gaza.

“There’s no clear answer to that question,” said an official who declined to be named. It’s something that hasn’t been determined yet. The Israeli government will have to reassess its policy toward Gaza.”

Businessmen in Gaza, who fear the imminent shut down of factories, are backing a proposal to put the Karni commercial crossing under private administration and to hire security guards without links to Hamas.

But the idea has yet to receive the blessing of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or in Israel.

“There is no crossing for goods, except for humanitarian goods,” said Nasser el Hilu, who imports bathroom doors and operates a construction business. “This leads to an expression in Gaza, ‘No death, no life. It’s in between. Don’t die, don’t live.’ ”

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