The unraveling of the Gaza blockade?

Restrictions on the Strip, in place since Hamas seized control in 2007, are at the heart of negotiations on a long-term deal. Hamas says it wants freedom for Gaza, but is likely to exploit any eased access to bring in more arms

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Illustrative photo of trucks at the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of trucks at the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The negotiations in Cairo, apparently renewed for five days Wednesday amid rocket fire and counterstrikes at the midnight hour, have been conducted behind closed doors. There is much to discuss — the role, henceforth, of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers, the fate of the Palestinian gunmen arrested during the operation, the notion, perhaps, of the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, the duration of the ceasefire.

But at the heart of the discussion, quite likely, is the blockade, the mechanism that restricts, to a small extent, the goods entering Gaza, and, to a great extent, everything that leaves the 140-square-mile enclave boxed in between Israel, Egypt, and the sea.

A look at the different crossings, for people and goods, may help paint a picture of the current situation, the way it has evolved over the past several years, and where it might develop at the close of the current campaign.

Kerem Shalom is today the sole passageway for goods in and out of Gaza. In 2005, before the rise of Hamas to power, a monthly average of 10,400 trucks of supplies entered Gaza from Israel. After Hamas, a terrorist organization avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel, won a popular election and, with brutal efficiency, ousted the PA from power in Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. For the first three years, from June 2007 to June 2010, during which only “vital supplies” were allowed to enter the Strip, a monthly average of 2,400 trucks passed into Gaza, according to statistics provided by the Gisha organization, which promotes a freer flow of supplies in and out of Gaza.

The blockade, barring everything from benzene to beef, was altered significantly by the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, in which Israeli naval commandos, under assault, killed nine Turkish activists on a vessel seeking to break the blockade. In response, Israel eased the blockade, allowing nearly all commodities to enter the Strip.

 Trucks carrying fuel for the Gaza Strip enter Rafah town through the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ SAID KHATIB)
Trucks carrying fuel for the Gaza Strip enter Rafah town through the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Said Khatib)

The central sticking point, though, was, and continues to be, the restrictions on dual-use supplies, those with the potential of being used for nefarious purposes. Foremost among them is cement.

The civilian population in Gaza is in need of building materials. Gisha estimates that the Strip is short 75,000 new housing units and 259 schools. Additionally, 10,000 homes were destroyed during Operation Protective Edge, both by Israeli munitions and Hamas IEDs. The construction industry in Gaza supports 70,000 workers, Gisha co-founder Sari Bashi said, and once accounted for 28 percent of the GDP.

And yet Hamas priorities in Gaza are evidently such that cement is funneled first toward military projects. Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s political bureau, admitted as much at a conference held in Damascus several months after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center reported. “Outwardly, the visible picture is talks about reconciliation… and construction; however, the hidden picture is that most of the money and effort is invested in the resistance and military preparations,” Mashaal said.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the uniform cement arches that were found to support the network of Hamas attack tunnels dug under the border and into Israel. Brig. Gen. Michael Edelstein, the commander of the Gaza Division, said during a briefing near the Gaza border two weeks ago that Hamas had created “a terror Metro” in Gaza, using dozens of millions of dollars and “thousands and thousands of pounds of cement.”

Rocket launch sites, internal tunnels, and bunkers were all also fortified with cement.

Section of a tunnel discovered running from the Gaza Strip to Israel, October 13, 2013. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)
Section of a tunnel discovered running from the Gaza Strip to Israel, October 13, 2013. (photo credit: Times of Israel/Mitch Ginsburg)

According to the Meir Amit Center, an organization run by former Israeli intelligence officers, the cement was ferried into Gaza underground quite freely before Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rose to power in Egypt and staunched the flow of goods from his territory through the tunnels. Today, a recent report suggests, the concrete is either made in Gaza, out of raw materials like fly ash and sea sand, or seized from international organizations, which must formally request the import of cement and submit plans and update reports to the Israeli authorities in order to receive clearance for bringing cement into Gaza.

Bashi said that fuel, too, was once considered a dual-use substance — as it is used for rockets — and that today it is allowed freely into Gaza, with the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories sending some 7.6 million liters of fuel and benzene into Gaza during the last month of war alone. (A total of 3,324 trucks of supplies have entered Gaza via Israel since the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge on July 7, according to COGAT figures.)

Citing a 45-percent unemployment rate in Gaza, up from 28 percent last year, Bashi said that the restrictions failed to prevent the tunnels and instead disproportionately punished the public, creating an economic situation that is anathema to stability. “It’s a mistake to think of it as a zero-sum game,” she said.

The price in blood, though, paid by Israeli soldiers in (at least temporarily) removing the threat of the tunnels, coupled with the life-changing insecurity felt by residents of the border region, make it highly unlikely that Israel will allow the free and open transport of cement to the Strip at this time, especially now that the tunnels under Rafah have been shut. More likely, it will be doled out to responsible actors and supervised to the extent possible. (Israel lost 64 soldiers in the first month of fighting — 11 of them killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from the tunnels inside Israel, and many more in the course of finding and demolishing the tunnels inside Gaza.)

Outgoing goods, too, can only pass through Kerem Shalom. The land border crossing to Egypt, in Rafah, is utterly closed to goods. And while Gazans are permitted to export preciously little, Israeli businesses profit from import sales of commodities such as mangoes and beef to Gaza.

Udi Tamir, a part owner of Eglei Tal, one of the largest Israeli cattle importers, said the industry sends roughly 35,000 head of live cattle into Gaza annually for beef, for example. He quipped during an earlier conversation, several years ago, that some Israeli raisers of cattle might be willing to offer Turkey’s newly elected president Recep Tayyip Erdogan a lifetime achievement award.

The Mavi Marmara being tugged out of Haifa harbor long after the raid (photo credit: Herzl Shapira/Flash 90)
The Mavi Marmara is tugged out of Haifa harbor long after the raid, (photo credit: Herzl Shapira/Flash 90)

From January to June 2014, an average of 17 truckloads of goods exited Gaza each month — 2% of the pre-2007 average, according to Gisha figures, and, while once Gaza exported 85 percent of its goods to the West Bank and Israel, today, based on an Israeli policy of separation between the PA-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, virtually no goods at all are allowed to travel from Gaza, via Israel, to the West Bank. According to Gisha, a sum total of 49 truckloads of date bars for an international organization, four truckloads of school desks for the PA and two truckloads of palm fronds for Israel are all that have passed to Israel and the West Bank since March 2012.

In this arena, quite likely, progress could be made with relatively little security risk and palpable benefit.

Pedestrian crossing

The Erez Crossing is the pathway for people between Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank; the Rafah Crossing, intermittently opened and closed over the years and closely monitored by Egypt, is the central pathway out of the Strip for international travel. Thus far this year, from January to June, a monthly average of 6,445 people exited Gaza via Rafah — a number that represents some 16 percent of the average during those same months in 2013, when Egypt was in the hands of Sissi’s predecessor Mohammed Morsi. Since the outbreak of war, the crossing has been shut down almost entirely.

During that same period of time, Gisha figures show, a monthly average of 5,920 Palestinians exited Gaza via Erez. Most were medical patients and their companions, and business people.

A Palestinian Christian couple from the Gaza Strip leaves through the Israeli Erez crossing, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Palestinian Christian couple from the Gaza Strip leaves through the Israeli Erez Crossing, December 24, 2009. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

According to Gisha, mourners for a first-degree relative are allowed to travel to the West Bank, as are Christians wishing to visit holy sites, first-degree relatives wishing to attend a wedding, students en route abroad, and orphans without first-degree relations in Gaza. Those wishing to marry in the West Bank, though, along with students seeking to study there, for example, are barred from exiting Gaza via Erez.

Bashi noted that 31 percent of the people in Gaza have relatives in the West Bank and called for increased freedom of travel, as permitted by security assessments. The Shin Bet, though, over the past year, has repeatedly intercepted messages between Gaza and the West Bank and has warned, even before the June 12 kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens, apparently orchestrated from Gaza, that Hamas has perpetually sought to reinvigorate the old terror cells in the West Bank.


With no airport and no seaport, the tried-and-true route of smuggling professionally made weapons into Gaza, a senior intelligence officer said during the current campaign, was from “the axis of resistance” — Iran, Hezbollah, Syria — to Sudan and from there north, via the Sinai Peninsula to the Rafah tunnels and into Gaza. Perhaps because the flow of terror ideology and materiel did not only move northwest into Gaza but also southeast into Rafah, the Sinai Peninsula, and mainland Egypt, fueling violence there, Egyptian President Sissi has largely eradicated the Rafah tunnels, which were used to transport everything from cars and cement to M-302 rockets.

Like the drug trade, though, it may be that the flow of arms can never be fully staunched. In early March, Israeli naval commandos boarded the Panama-flagged Klos-C ship and found 40 M-302 rockets and 180 120mm. mortar rounds beneath many tons of cement. A UN report found that the arms were in fact sent from Iran, but disputed the Israeli claim that they were bound for Gaza. Neither Israeli nor UN officials provided hard evidence for the ultimate destination of the weapons, but it is hard to fathom why Israeli troops would intercept a ship more than 1,000 nautical miles from its territorial waters unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others truly believed that the arms might otherwise later be fired at Israeli citizens.

Hamas demands the lifting of the blockade and the opening of a naval port, a tangible achievement that could be presented to the people of Gaza as a sign of autonomy and freedom. Such demands are weighed, however, against its ceaseless efforts to import the sort of arms that have made Hezbollah such a formidable fighting force in the region.

On Wednesday night, shortly before the ceasefire was extended, Hamas offered footage of the homemade assembly of the M-75 rocket, lovingly glossed and sanded like a surfboard. The metals it is made of, and the explosives in the warhead, are meant to be caught in the fine net of the Israeli blockade.

At the close of this campaign, as after the Mavi Marmara incident, many of the facets of the blockade will be addressed at the negotiating table. Israel, it stands to reason, will be relatively pliable on concessions that strengthen the economy — such as, say, the export of strawberries and other goods. It will be far less so on the importing of dual-use goods of the sort that enable the construction of the M-75.

The trick will be finding a formula that widens the holes in the netting so as to support ordinary Gazans, grants achievements to the PA rather than Hamas, and allows Israel to ensure that Hamas, with its sworn allegiance to jihad, is shackled in its bid to replicate the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed