Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Starving Gaza

Amid immense strains on Gaza's economy, officials continue to deal with significant security issues, writes Erica Silverman

"Open another line!" demanded young men banging on the doors of a Gaza City bakery with their fists Monday night as bread queues spread throughout the city. Bakeries had run out of wheat and flour supplies, and rice and sugar selling at double price was difficult to find in stores.

The humanitarian crisis the Gaza Strip faced this week as supplies of grains, dairy products, baby formula, and other essential goods dwindled has been building for weeks. Karni, the only commercial crossing for imports and exports of goods to Gaza, opened for less than 40 minutes Monday afternoon after being sealed for nearly two months. About six trucks carrying flour and sugar, along with several containers of chips and coca-cola were allowed in, and then Israel again ordered the crossing shut.

Palestinian officials say the food delivery falls well short of what is needed to supply Gaza's 1.4 million residents, while Israeli officials blame the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the lack of food supplies. US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones hosted Palestinian and Israeli officials at his residence on Sunday. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acceded to American urgings and agreed to the limited re-opening.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "this is a textbook example of Israel's penchant for blaming the victim. Only weeks ago, Dov Weissglas openly declared Israel's intention to impose a 'diet' on our already impoverished population. We hope that the current bread shortage in the occupied Gaza Strip is not the first phase of this plan."

The Israeli Army claims the reason for Karni's closure is the suspected presence of tunnels dug by Palestinian militants leading to the crossing. It threatens to keep the crossing closed until the PA digs several trenches to intercept militant-dug tunnels. Palestinian security services have dug four trenches, totalling more than 1.5 kilometres in length around the crossing, in an effort to find these tunnels. So far, none have been found, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Despite Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in September they have retained tight control over Karni in violation of the "Agreement on Movement and Access" brokered between the PA and Israel by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn 15 November, which stipulated that "passages will operate continuously." Indeed, Karni has been closed 60 per cent of this year, and the price of food products has risen 30 per cent since January, according to the OCHA. Every day Karni remains closed results in economic losses of exported goods of approximately $600,000, according to the Palestine Trade Centre (PalTrade).

Food shortages, an economic crisis coupled with rampant unemployment, and a breakdown of law and order have created an unbearable environment for Palestinians in Gaza and for foreign workers who have almost completely evacuated due to the most recent wave of violent abductions executed by the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP began targeting British and American citizens after leader Ahmed Saadat was seized during an Israeli raid of a PA prison in Jericho 14 March.

In other developments, Israel finally turned over the $54 million in tax revenue to the PA 15 March that barely covers the monthly salaries of the close to 150,000 PA employees. Israel had been withholding the funds, in violation of the Paris Protocol signed in 1994 in conjunction with the Oslo Agreement, as punishment for Hamas's electoral victory. Meanwhile, Palestinian prime minister designate Ismail Haniyeh submitted Hamas's list of 24 cabinet ministers to PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday after failing to convince rival factions to join the government. The PFLP opted out at the last minute. Abbas's approval is anticipated, if the PA faces financial collapse he holds power to dismiss Haniyeh. The proposed cabinet is expected to go before parliament for a vote of confidence this week.

Armed Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militants, affiliated with Abbas's Fatah movement, stormed the foreign and finance ministries Monday and exchanged fire with security forces protesting against delayed salaries and lack of jobs. Two gunmen and two security officials were wounded as employees ran for cover. Earlier that day, over 50 Al-Aqsa militants took over Gaza's power plant for several hours and attempted to seize control of a military hospital.

Meanwhile, several others were hurt by gunfire along the main north-south thoroughfare leading to Erez crossing -- the only access point to Israel and the West Bank -- as scores of Al-Aqsa gunmen blocked and planted bombs along the road to demand employment in the PA security services. President Abbas was scheduled to use the road on Monday to return to Ramallah.

Gunmen also briefly shot at Gaza's main police station. Witnesses reported the gunfire was in response to Police Chief General Ala Hosni's safe passage along the roadway as he returned from the West Bank.

In the end, the PA accepted that the militants who planted the bombs along the roadway be awarded positions. Brigadier Ismail Al-Ghalban, head of the First Battalion in Northern Gaza, met the Fatah secretary of northern Gaza, Jamal Abul-Jedian, to reach an agreement. The bombs were removed, the road was opened, and PA Preventive Security resumed their positions.

Many, however, were critical of the deal. The PA is struggling to pay the forces it already employs, and rewarding those that threaten violence sews the seeds of further acts. Similarly, with the demands of kidnappers often met, kidnapping has become a normal part of Gaza's reality.

A senior delegation of Egyptian officials remains fixed in Gaza to ameliorate the political and security crisis. "From the beginning our role was based on the principle that Gaza is key to Egypt's national security, we must be involved," stated an Egyptian official in Gaza speaking off the record. Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian General Intelligence and President Hosni Mubarak came to an agreement with Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Egypt would send the delegation to Gaza before and after Israel's withdrawal on the assumption that the withdrawal would be from Gaza's entirety and all border crossings.

The political delegation, led by General Mohamed Ibrahim, has been an interlocutor between Palestinian factions, successfully maintaining the ceasefire agreed upon in Cairo last March. The delegation has tried to convince resistance factions to adopt more moderate policies, to halt attacks against Israel, and to take more positive steps towards national unity.

The security delegation led by General Ibrahim Shukri works closely with the PA ministry of interior and security forces, including a team of 15 senior Egyptian intelligence officers whose objective is to "re-build the Palestinian soldier". After the past five years of the Intifada, not only must their facilities and weapons be replaced but their military doctrine and their morale also be rebuilt, explained the official. General Shukri worked closely with former minister of interior Nasser Youssef to reform the preventive and national security forces, enabling them to successfully re-deploy across the Strip post-withdrawal.

Today the delegation will move on three tracks, enumerated the official. First, providing continued provide support to the PA and Abbas, while enhancing the presidential institution. Second, working to rebuild Fatah, convinced they are the most responsible entity to manage a Palestinian state. Thirdly, to continue working with the Hamas government, pressuring them to deal with the outside world pragmatically.

Hamas trounced Fatah in January's parliamentary elections on a campaign promise to restore law and order to the West Bank and Gaza. Will Hamas deliver?

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