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Israel-Hamas talks leave future of Gaza blockade cloudy

Gaza residents and smugglers are left to ponder vague promises to discuss easing restrictions on the movement of goods and people at a later date.

November 22, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the Attar family, displaced during the Hamas-Israel conflict, return to the remains of their home in the northern Gaza Strip.
Members of the Attar family, displaced during the Hamas-Israel conflict,… (Marco Longari, AFP/Getty…)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Seated on a muddy hill, Sulieman Masri glumly scanned the giant crater that was once a smuggling tunnel used to support his family.

After the Israeli airstrikes of the last week, Thursday morning was the first safe time to venture out. He discovered his tunnel was among 140 Israel destroyed. Now it's now a massive sand pit coated with gray explosives residue. It would take two months to rebuild at the cost of $20,000.

"But I've heard that they are going to open the borders, which could put the tunnels out of business," he said. "Now I don't know what to do."

Masri isn't the only one wondering what will happen next with Israel's 5-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip's border and coastline.

TIMELINE: Israel-Gaza conflict

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the coastal strip, persuaded Gazans to support its confrontation with Israel in part by vowing repeatedly that it would keep fighting until the controversial blockade was lifted.

So many were surprised Wednesday night when the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire included only vague promises to discuss easing restrictions on goods and people at a later date.

A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the group received private assurances from Egypt that the Rafah crossing to the Sinai Peninsula, which currently permits limited movement of people, will be expanded to include goods, and that Israel agreed not to object.

Israelis, who are worried that opening the borders will allow Hamas to rearm itself, don't want to talk about the subject until after it's clear that the cease-fire is holding.

But even if Egypt expands Rafah traffic as Gazans hope, Israel is under no obligation to follow suit at crossings along its border with Gaza. In fact, many conservative Israeli lawmakers advocate sealing the Israeli border with Gaza entirely and orienting the restive territory — and its many problems — toward Egypt.

That could bring a widening of the political and economic divisions between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, further complicating the creation of a Palestinian state, some observers fear.

"This could exacerbate the fragmentation of the Palestinian society," said Sari Bashi, director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha. "Expanding access at Rafah is important, but it doesn't change the need for access between the West Bank and Gaza. That's where families are separated. That's where the markets are."

Many Gazans say they were disappointed that the truce agreement did not go further in setting clear conditions and deadlines for easing border restrictions.

"It would be much easier if I could sell in Israel again," said Kamal Ashour, who owns a sweater factory in Gaza City. Before 2007, he sold 90% of his goods in Israel and employed 40 people making up to 1,000 pieces a day. Today he's laid off half the staff and sells one-fifth of that volume only to Gaza shops.

On Thursday, he and his sons sat in their darkened factory sipping coffee. Machines were idle. Boxes of merchandise were piled up in the storeroom.

Exporting to Egypt might help, but he suspects it would be expensive to transport the sweaters to Cairo, a six-hour drive away.

"Israel is faster and just makes more sense," he said. "And my customers there love the quality of our product."

Though Israel relaxed its restrictions of importing food and most other goods into Gaza in 2010, exports are still tightly restricted. Before 2007, 85% of Gaza's exports were to the West Bank and Israel, according to Gisha, the rights group.

Since then only 30 truckloads of goods have made it to the West Bank, Bashi said. An additional 18 truckloads of Gaza exports clear Israeli security checks each month on the way to markets abroad, but the volume is just 2% of the former amount, she said.

The policy led dozens of factories to shut down, and thousands of people lost their jobs.

Even smuggling tunnels aren't as lucrative as they used to be. Hamas taxes the trade, which now accounts for nearly half of Gaza's consumer goods, and transportation costs are rising because of the insecurity in the Sinai.

On Thursday, workers picked over the remains of about 30 bombed-out tunnels near Rafah. Shreds of plastic tent sheeting that once covered tunnel openings flapped in the wind and workers tried to repair broken pulleys.

Shahdi abu Jazar, 22, whose family owns one of the only tunnels that appear to have survived, said he supports easing the restrictions at Rafah, even if it means the tunnels shut down.

"This work is hard and dangerous," he said. "If they open the border, then we'll just start importing through there instead. As Palestinians, it's better for everyone that the restrictions be eased."

It remains unclear when talks will resume on the border policy. According to the understanding, that should take place after the first 24 hours of calm.

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