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Gazans See Border Controls as Stifling Economy

Israel must expand the passage of merchandise through crossings if industry is to perk up enough to bring back jobs, officials say.

October 16, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

KARNI CROSSING, Gaza Strip — Seafood vendor Hassan Hasonah fidgets next to a 1-ton shipment of fresh fish, crabs and squid, watching their bed of chipped ice melt in the midday heat and waiting for Israeli border officials to open a gate so he can send the shipment across to the Israeli side.

After a two-hour wait, the Palestinian trader is cleared to load his pallets onto a conveyor belt that shuttles goods from trucks on the Gaza Strip side into Israel for inspection and reshipment. But just then, the gate is abruptly closed, and his waiting begins again.

Hasonah, 35, with a pudgy build and rolled-up pants, has grown used to nerve-racking border delays. A day earlier, he said, about 10% of his seafood shipment spoiled because of the wait. He added: "The day before was worse."

Palestinian officials say this dust-choked truck port, the main gateway for goods entering and leaving Gaza, is crucial to hopes for reviving Gaza's battered economy through expanded trade after Israel's withdrawal from the coastal strip last month.

After five years of conflict, many of Gaza's 1.3 million residents are desperate for better lives. Rebuilding industry and creating jobs will be crucial tests for the Palestinian leadership in Gaza, where unemployment runs at 35% and nearly two of three people live in poverty.

Palestinian officials are seeking private investment to supplement a recent pledge of $3 billion from the leading industrialized nations, and they are planning how to use land once inhabited by 8,500 Jewish settlers.

Palestinian leaders express guarded optimism about prospects for Gaza's renewal, which will first require building infrastructure. Among other things, they hope to expand farming by making use of thousands of greenhouses left by the Israelis and encouraging tourism centered on Gaza's white-sand beaches, some of which were off-limits to Palestinians during Israel's occupation.

But they argue that success will hinge on how freely people and goods will be allowed to move in and out of Gaza. Palestinian officials say Israel must expand the passage of merchandise through Karni and other crossings, and cede control over Gaza's borders in general, if industry here is to perk up enough to resurrect thousands of jobs.

Border management is among several key unresolved issues on which the two sides hope to reach agreement before a summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That session, postponed from Tuesday, is expected to take place late this month or in early November.

The Palestinians are eager to build a seaport and to fix and reopen Gaza's damaged airport. Israel has given a green light for the seaport project, but not for renewed operation of the airport. The two sides also are haggling over how much oversight Israel will retain over Gaza's border with Egypt, a potential trading partner.

"Is Gaza going to be Singapore, or is it going to be a jail?" Mazen Sonokrot, the Palestinian economy minister, said in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "We don't know yet."

Israeli officials say they support Palestinian efforts to rescue the Gaza economy, which once was bolstered by earnings of laborers with jobs in Israel. The number of those jobs dropped drastically after fighting broke out in September 2000, as Israel further restricted how many entry permits were granted to Gaza workers.

But Israel warns that new border arrangements cannot be made until Palestinian authorities show they can manage security. In the past, bombings and other attacks have prompted Israeli authorities to shut Karni or slow the flow of goods as a precaution against the smuggling of weapons or attackers.

In an attack in March 2004, a pair of bombers from Gaza hid in a cargo container that passed through Karni and then detonated themselves at the Israeli seaport of Ashdod, killing 10. In January, the crossing was targeted by Palestinian militants who set off explosives and opened fire on Israeli personnel, killing six civilian workers. The three gunmen were slain in a shootout with troops.

Israel closed Karni for two weeks after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza targeted southern Israeli communities in late September.

"We want to see maximum movement at the crossings, but that decision has to be weighed next to the very real security threats that there are," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "If we opened every crossing and there were a wave of suicide bombings, then we'd just have to close everything down again."

Palestinian business owners are especially eager to end "back-to-back" transfers, in which goods are unloaded on one side of the Karni crossing, sent through Israeli inspection and then reloaded onto another truck once over the border.

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