AnalysisIsrael: Hamas is cynically raising the pressure on Gazans

Who gains from burning Gaza’s only fuel pipelines?

It will take weeks to repair Kerem Shalom’s diesel and gasoline terminal after rioters, allegedly directed by Hamas, set them alight

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

GAZA BORDER — The Kerem Shalom Crossing is the main, often the only, passageway into the Gaza Strip. Each day, hundreds of trucks travel through it, bringing everything from medical supplies and building materials to pajamas and children’s toys into the beleaguered coastal enclave.

There are two other crossings into Gaza, Erez and Rafah. But Erez is almost solely for pedestrians, and the Egyptian-controlled Rafah is kept closed the vast majority of the time. This leaves Kerem Shalom as the most important lifeline for Gaza, which has been subject to a strict blockade by both Israel and Egypt for the past 11 years in order to prevent terrorist groups from bringing weapons into the Strip.

Yet just after 6:00 p.m. Friday at the tail end of that day’s mass “March of Return” protest, a group of some 200 Palestinians broke into the Gaza side of the crossing and set fire to the Strip’s only fuel terminal and a conveyor belt used for raw construction materials. Two conveyor belts which brought animal feed into Gaza were also wrecked, according to the deputy director of the crossing.

On Saturday night, Israel announced it would be keeping the crossing closed as it assessed the damage and determined how to bring Kerem Shalom back online. The army said exceptions would be made for humanitarian goods.

“Israel didn’t make this decision in order to punish anyone, there’s just no other way,” a senior officer in the Israeli military’s liaison unit to the Palestinians told reporters on Sunday.

“And now, me and my commanders are breaking our heads trying to figure out how to get medicine into Gaza,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Medical supplies waiting to be trucked into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing on May 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Indeed, later that afternoon, six Israeli trucks full of critical medical equipment were driven to the Palestinian side where they were unloaded into a staging area. The equipment was then loaded onto Palestinian trucks and driven into Gaza.

Video footage apparently shot from a surveillance balloon over the crossing, which was released by the Defense Ministry on Sunday, showed the attack on Kerem Shalom. The footage (at the top of this article) first shows the crossing before the attack. Then as the sun goes down a number of fires can be seen on the outskirts of the facility. Finally at nightfall a massive blaze at the fuel terminal is visible on the left-hand side of the frame.

The damage was not easily visible from the Israeli side of the crossing on Sunday, beyond a few scorch marks on the equipment. But the smell of diesel fuel still hung in the air.

Gas pipes on fire at the Kerem Shalom goods crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to assessments by Israeli and Palestinian engineers, it will take weeks to repair the damage to the pipelines, which brought diesel and gasoline into Gaza. There is no alternative.

“There’s just no possibility [now] to bring fuel into Gaza,” said the senior officer from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories liaison unit.

The fuel terminal at the Kerem Shalom Crossing, which was burned by Palestinian rioters on May 11, 2018. (Screen shot: Defense Ministry)

“It will take at least a few weeks to a few months to rebuild the infrastructure,” he said.

Friday’s “March of Return” riot was the latest in a series of violent demonstrations, which began on March 30 and are expected to reach their peak on Monday and Tuesday.

The Israeli military is convinced that the Hamas terrorist group, which rules the Gaza Strip, directly ordered the rioters to destroy the fuel terminal and conveyor belts.

“The people who came to Kerem Shalom and destroyed the crossing, they didn’t go there by themselves. We know that Hamas sent them,” said the COGAT officer in a conference room in the Gaza Division’s headquarters in Re’im.

The official said that during the attack on Kerem Shalom, Israeli officials watched as rioters ran back and forth between the crossing and a Hamas position a few hundred meters away.

“Then we saw about 10 Hamas people standing at the gates of Kerem Shalom,” he said.

Gaza rioters trash infrastructure at the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Palestinian side of the Gaza-Israel border, May 11, 2018 (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the officer, the Hamas members were wearing civilian clothes but directed the events with walkie-talkies, “giving orders — what to do, where to go.”

The COGAT official said that, through back channels, Israel repeatedly asked Hamas to get the rioters to stop.

“They didn’t accept our requests and allowed the people to burn the crossing,” the officer said.

The damage means no cooking fuel, no gasoline for vehicles and no diesel fuel for the generators that supplement the scant electricity Gaza gets each day from Israeli power lines. (The power lines from Egypt have been dormant for months. Due to a dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the Gaza power plant was also shut down earlier this year.)

Cynical reasoning

So why do it? Why cut off the only source of medical equipment, building materials and a thousands of tons of food each day for both people and animals in Gaza?

The COGAT officer offered two explanations: one economic, the other tactical.

The Kerem Shalom Crossing into the Gaza Stripon May 13, 2018. Parts of the crossing were burned by Palestinian rioters two days prior. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

As part of an agreement late last year, Hamas handed over the keys to the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, meaning the Palestinian Authority would be collecting taxes on the goods coming through the crossing.

This was supposed to be the case for Egypt’s Rafah Crossing as well, but Hamas recently seized back control of that passageway.

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 16, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

On Saturday, Egypt reopened Rafah Crossing as a temporary substitute for Kerem Shalom.

With nothing coming through Kerem Shalom, that means no taxes are being collected by the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, “all the taxes from Rafah go to Hamas,” the COGAT officer said.

Unnamed Palestinian sources told the Ynet news site on Saturday they’d come to a similar conclusion: that the terror group had the crossing destroyed so that its rival, the PA, wouldn’t be able to collect taxes and Hamas would.

But shutting down Kerem Shalom also serves another, perhaps more important goal for Hamas as it gears up for this week’s “March of Return” protests.

A Palestinian protester holds wire cuttere after burning tires near the fence during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Friday, May 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

While the Israeli military believes Hamas is encouraging and directing the riots, the engine that is keeping them going runs on the anger and frustration of the residents of the Gaza Strip, which will only be increased in light of Kerem Shalom’s closure.

“They are playing with their people, putting pressure on their people and then ‘exporting’ that pressure toward Israel, the PA, and the international community,” the officer said.

Finding workarounds

In the coming days, the crossing is expected to begin reopening, piecemeal. But it will likely take months before the conveyor belts and fuel terminal are fully back up and running.

A conveyor belt at the Kerem Shalom Crossing, which was burned by Palestinian rioters on May 11, 2018. (Screen shot: Defense Ministry)

The damage to the conveyor belt for construction materials will take time to fix, as there are concerns that the fires may have warped the metal. A special, rare type of rubber which covered the belt was also burned away completely in some places and will have to be replaced.

Until it is fixed, the raw materials will go through the crossing in trucks, a far less efficient method, according to the deputy director of Kerem Shalom.

The issue of animal feed is much more complicated. Approximately 2,000 tons of fodder pass through Kerem Shalom each day, coming to the crossing in 50 trucks, each carrying 40 tons of feed.

Without a conveyor belt, the feed will likely have to first be loaded into sacks so that it can be moved between the Israeli and Palestinian trucks. This is an arduous, time-consuming task, but may become necessary until the belt is fixed, the deputy director said.

The most dire concern is the fuel terminal. Once the necessary parts arrive, it should only take about one week to make the repairs. The problem is it will take some time for engineers to determine exactly what was damaged and then yet more time until parts are actually delivered, the deputy director said.

In the meantime, small amounts of fuel may be brought in through Rafah. But for now, the already power-starved Gaza is effectively cut off.

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