The dentist called to say he was sorry but the appointment would have to be put off indefinitely. For some time now, none of the substances necessary for dental care have arrived in Gaza.
The patient, Ali Abu Shahale, who owns a large engineering firm and is chairman of the Gaza merchants’ association, was surprised. He had been aware that there was a shortage of iron, cement and other building materials (supplies of which had been virtually frozen for weeks but which had been recently renewed in quantities that were insufficient to keep up with the pace of construction) but the lack of material for filling teeth was something new.
The Gaza Strip’s welfare is dependent on several border-crossing points where Israel has absolute control. During April and May, for example, there was a serious shortage of flour, one of the main dietary components of a society where two-thirds of the population are living below the poverty line. And construction was almost suspended because of a shortage of building materials.
In April 2000, 3,773 trucks brought goods worth some NIS 97 million into Gaza from Israel. In April 2002, that figurewas down to 979 trucks carrying NIS 27 million worth of goods. In May 2000, 5,087 trucks brought 126 million of goods and in May 2002, only 2,309 trucks entered the Gaza Strip from Israel with NIS 66 million worth of goods.
That is an improvement over the previous month but a far cry from the volume of trade two years ago. Exports from Gaza are also limited – NIS 424,000 of exports in April of this year as compared with NIS 28 million worth two years previously.
Since more than 50 percent of Gazans are unemployed, there are people for whom the question of how much steel comes into Gaza is an issue of survival. H., an engineer who is supervising construction at the new town of Sheikh Zayed in the northern Strip, is afraid he will be sent on unpaid vacation if the supply of steel is not renewed in a few days; A., a construction worker from the Shati refugee camp, has already been told to work only two days a week.
Abu Shahale’s company recently won two tenders: the planning and construction of a rehabilitation hospital, and the building of three large silos in Gaza, Nablus and Hebron. Over the past two years, he has learned a lesson about speedy commitments with construction companies. A contract is signed but construction is held up because the building materials are not released from Ashdod port in time. Nevertheless, the hospital is of prime importance and Abu Shahale has already contacted contractors. The funding – $1.2 million – is coming from the Islamic Development Bank’s al-Aksa Fund, through a charitable association headed by Jalila Dahlan, wife of Mohammed Dahlan, chief of Preventive Security.
The wheat silos are also vital, particularly in view of the political conclusion that Israel will retain control of border-crossings for a long time to come and will decide how many bags of flour enter the Strip. The three silos will hold 100,000 tons of grain. The first will be set up in Gaza, put together from metal parts preconstructed in the U.S. But importing the parts from the U.S. is a gamble because one can never know when they will be released from Ashdod under Israeli security arrangements. About 1,500 containers of raw materials and goods meant for the territories have been in the port for weeks, even months, while the Palestinian merchants have to pay for storage.
Slowed down at Karni
The second big stumbling block is the Karni border-crossing which works very slowly. Goods have to be brought through openings in a high wall which separates the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The Gazans are dependent on the procedures in seven “sorting cubicles” (which are in fact large rooms), on 23 X-ray machines, several pipes sticking out of a concrete wall (used for fluids) and a giant parking lot where the trucks pour gravel and bags of cement. Every cubicle has two steel doors. When the one facing Israel closes, the other, facing the Palestinian side, opens and the goods are unloaded into the cubicle. Two adjacent cubicles cannot operate at the same time. The Israelis set the pace at which the X-ray equipment operates.
A few days ago, the covered square on the Palestinian side of the Karni wall was full of boxes of eggs, bags of cement, crates with watermelons, boxes of oranges and sweet potatoes, closed cartons of clothes and bags full of cloth. Drivers, merchants and security personnel wandered round between the trucks and pitchforks. An egg merchant who markets his produce in Nablus said that 4,000 cartons of eggs had been waiting at the crossing point for two days. When his turn came to put them through the X-ray equipment, he managed to get only 1,000 cartons through by 1.45 P.M. and was forced to continue the next day.
A distraught citrus grower was walking around next to the X-ray machine. Three months after picking his oranges and keeping them in cold storage, because Karni was closed to Palestinian exports, he finally had the chance to bring his boxes there. The citrus grower exports to the Arab countries via Jordan because the Europeans do not want oranges that have been lying around for three months in torn boxes, because of the many loadings and off-loadings. He had 2,500 boxes with 96 tons of citrus fruit waiting. By noon, he had succeeded in getting only 180 boxes through. Since March, Israel has changed the procedures and the conveyor can now be filled only to half its height. This makes the procedures about three times longer.
On that particular day, 10 X-ray machines were not operating – three because Israel wanted to improve their protection and the remainder, as explained to the Palestinians, because of a shortage of manpower. The merchants and drivers were distraught, thinking of all the additional delays.
A textile producer, one of the few left in an industry which once employed thousands, has better luck. He is allowed to pile up his boxes to the full height on the conveyor since he produces for Kitan, an Israeli firm. The goods will be exported. Nevertheless, he too manages to get only 18 of his 40 containers across. The goods are being destroyed, he says, by six loadings and unloadings. They become torn and dirty, and he misses his deadlines. Last year he paid NIS 370,000 in fines.
Sorting cubicle No. 5 is full of watermelons that come from the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side of the cubicle, the Israelis have recently added two concrete blocks as a safety measure, to prevent trucks from entering the cubicle. But this also prevents the goods from being loaded directly on the trucks and they have to be loaded first onto pitchforks and then again onto the trucks.
A truck carrying 10 diesel engines, bought by a Palestinian from the Israel Defense Forces, has been waiting 10 days outside Karni. The line is several kilometers long, and the driver has to be paid between NIS 500 and NIS 1,000 a day. The merchants have to add to all this the deposit of some NIS 5,000 paid for every container that carries the goods. Because of the strict security arrangements, they cannot return the containers immediately and must forfeit their deposits. Thousands of containers are lying around at Karni and other places in the Gaza Strip.
Security or attrition?
There are deep differences of opinion between Israel and the Palestinians over the new arrangements at the Karni border-crossing. Israeli security personnel and the Airports Authority, which is in charge of Karni, say they are vital security precautions. The IDF spokesman says two attempts were made last summer to smuggle weapons through the border-crossing. About seven months ago, a Palestinian shot a guard there and three weeks ago, IDF soldiers killed an armed Palestinian who almost succeeded in entering the Israeli side.
Menahem Zelikovsky, who is in charge of the border-crossing on behalf of the authority, says that the Palestinian side “has not learned the lesson and is not doing its part to meet security demands.” He denies that goods are spoiled in the long wait and says that no complaints have been lodged about this. He blames the “lack of security coordination on the Palestinian side” for the long lines and the failure to return the containers.
On the other hand, Salim Abu Sefeiyeh, in charge of the border crossing for the Palestinian Preventive Security, says the Shin Bet security service has examined and approved all the Palestinian security measures. The Palestinians pass through five security checks on the Palestinian side and get special papers that are renewed every three months. He says the Israeli guard was shot by “someone who wants to see Karni closed. We caught him… and he is still in detention. We have a sincere interest in seeing that the work here is not disrupted.”
In April, the Palestinians complained that three Israeli Ports Authority workers had taken a bribe to put a certain truck at the head of the line. Zelikovsky says that a private detective was hired to look into the accusations but they were found to be baseless.
The Palestinians are not convinced. They say the new measures, which slow down the process, are designed both to make it possible to receive baksheesh and to serve political interests: internal pressure on the Palestinian Authority because of lack of food and materials, weakening of the population in case Israel decides to take over the Gaza Strip and harming the economy and development of the area.
Zelikovsky says Israel does not interfere with the order of entry of the goods. The Palestinians, however, ask how is it that the market is now full of onions, and why it took three days to get baby formula to the hospitals, and why there are so many expensive fruits which so few can buy, but insufficient flour. (A.H.)