Kerem Shalom
Goods at Kerem Shalom. An undeclared status quo governs relations between Israel and Hamas. Photo by Eli Hershkovitz
Text size

The line of trucks at the entry to Kerem Shalom, the southern crossing point into the Gaza Strip, is more than a kilometer long. The trucks, mostly from Israel and some from the West Bank, carry a variety of goodies: equipment from the German company Siemens for Gaza's power station, boxes of soft drinks, sacks of cement. North of the crossing point, on the Israeli side, renovation work to expand the terminal continues energetically, at an estimated cost of some NIS 100 million.

Brig. Gen. (res. ) Kamil Abu-Rokon, who heads the Defense Ministry authority in charge of border crossings, says that on an average day 280 trucks pass through Kerem Shalom. That number is comparable to the number that passed through the Karni checkpoint before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Should the renovation work finish on schedule, by December the Kerem Shalom area should be five times larger than it is at present, and it should be able to process twice as many trucks as it does today, though much will depend on the Strip's ability to absorb exports from Israel. With regard to a portion of the goods, demand in Gaza is relatively small because similar products are smuggled in at much lower cost via tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula.

The ambitious project drawn up by the Defense Ministry also envisions Gazans exporting their goods overseas via Kerem Shalom and the Ashdod port. As things stand now, wares produced in Gaza move through the terminal on several dozens of trucks each day; flowers and vegetable produce constitute the bulk of them. This flow is expected to increase, even though (as Abu-Rokon explains ) the project will remain mired in difficulties as long as the international community fails to make good on its promise to fund the acquisition of the costly equipment needed for the security inspection of goods.

Physical contact between the Israeli and Palestinian sides is minimal. The terminal is constructed of a series of closed booths, each holding large areas for the unloading and inspection of cargo. After the Israelis unload the products and security teams leave the area, Palestinians enter to load the trucks whose destination is sites within the Strip. The goal of such segregation is to reduce security risks: Both Kerem Shalom and the Karni crossing point, which remains closed, were in the past targeted by terror groups. But there are also political calculations at play here.

Officially, Israel and Hamas do not speak with one another. In actual fact, however, there is wide-ranging economic and logistical coordination handled by mediators, a small coterie of representatives of the Palestinian Authority government on the West Bank, and private contractors who operate the terminal on the Palestinian side. Everyone knows that the contractors receive orders from Hamas, but for all concerned, it is convenient to overlook this fact. This is akin to kissing through a veil, and the whole situation reminds one of Israel's insistence not to talk with the PLO during the Madrid Conference in 1991 - even though everyone knew that members of the Palestinian delegation acted with the blessing of Yasser Arafat.

That is just one of the ironies of Kerem Shalom. Another involves the Palestinians' ongoing complaints about the horrific economic siege leveled against the Strip, not to mention Turkey's threats to come to the rescue of the incarcerated Gaza residents. While it is an ideological, and occasional physical, antagonist of Israel, Hamas is right now an economic partner that is acquiring from the state more items than are needed for the daily living requirements of the Strip. The distress faced by Gaza residents remains acute, however, although the idiotic Israeli prohibition on the entry of goods - which included rigorous monitoring of certain types of products - was rescinded over a year ago.

Whoever wants to can see this irony embodied in the work of the director of the crossing point administration on the Israeli side of Kerem Shalom. This is Ami Shaked, formerly security officer of the Gush Katif settlements, who was always the first to arrive on the scene of terror attacks on these settlements during the second intifada, before Israel evacuated the Strip.

The gradual change began in January 2010. Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, coordinator of government activities in the territories, decided to reverse procedures: Instead of a short list of goods permissible for entry to Gaza, Israel drafted another list of products that have possible dual uses (that is, civilian goods that can also be used for military use, such as in the construction of bunkers ) and are not allowed into Gaza.

The international criticism leveled against Israel following the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010 led to a government decision whose effective meaning on the ground was tantamount to the lifting of the siege. The hubris that characterized the attempt to impose economic sanctions on the Strip eventually began to fade.

In a little over a year, Israel authorized the import to Gaza of construction materials for 163 projects, funded partly by international organizations. "Top Hamas officials go around all day long with scissors, cutting ribbons to dedicate clinics, water-purification stations, and large factories," explains one senior IDF officer, Lieut. Col. "Kobi," who works with the branch responsible for the coordination of government policy in the territories.

Concurrently, there has been a major economic change in Gaza. Unemployment figures dropped from 40 to 25 percent. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continues to provide crucial "oxygen" to Gaza via disbursement of wages to 70,000 PA workers, many of whom have sat idly at home over the past four years. Recently, Hamas has encountered difficulties procuring revenue. One possible solution would be to increase its tax collection, partly by imposing fees on goods smuggled via the Sinai tunnels.

Convergence of interests

A tour along the Gaza border this week reveals a reality quite unlike what appears in ongoing media reports, and resoundingly different from official Israeli rhetoric, which was stepped up after the terror attack north of Eilat on August 18. During the escalation that followed - when Katyusha missiles fell on Be'er Sheva, and Israeli air force planes carried out assassinations of top Palestinian figures - it appeared Israel was preparing for another military operation akin to Cast Lead.

The actual circumstances are completely different: An undeclared status quo governs relations between Israel and Hamas, and this convergence of interests suits both sides. Hamas is busily engaged with its effort to beef up its rule in the Strip, and to establish gradually an independent entity - one that would compete with the regime established by the PA in the West Bank. Israel is loath to interfere with this effort. At the same time, by ignoring Hamas' fortification of a rocket-launching infrastructure in the Strip, it has purchased a respite from attacks for its Negev towns and communities.

The relative quiet on the Gaza border is threatened from other fronts. From Sinai, for example, where operatives from Palestinian organizations from Gaza (including Hamas ) are trying to create an alternative "playing field" from which to launch attacks on Israel. And, of course, there is the wider regional reality: Should there be a military confrontation in some other theater, be it Iran, Lebanon or the West Bank, Gaza would invariably be pulled into the fighting, and Hamas would return to its original mandate as an organization dedicated to anti-Israeli resistance.

"There is a trend of quiet right now in Gaza," confirms a top IDF officer in the Southern Command, but quickly cites two factors that threaten this situation: Sinai, and also internal disputes within Hamas.

Whereas Hamas' political leadership and its military "chief of staff," Ahmed Jabri, support the current status quo policy, there is a branch of the organization, headed by long-time terror suspect Mohammed Deif, that is not comfortable with the current cease-fire. Deif's demonstrations of independence could disrupt the quiet. Hamas' political leadership could also abandon the status quo situation should a promising military option suddenly come its way; this could include the kidnapping of more Israelis to enhance the value of the "asset" Hamas has long held: IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

For its part, Sinai is a thorn that immeasurably complicates the current state of affairs. In the absence of both a fortified fence (one is currently under construction ) and an effective means of gathering intelligence, Israel's alignment on the Egyptian border - unlike the situation in Gaza - is not suited to "absorb" a terror strike attempt. A partial solution is the massive deployment of troop reinforcements; such a reinforcement procedure is already weighing heavily on the IDF's work schedule for 2012. Israel's relative weakness in the Sinai region is liable to prompt attempted terror attacks, which would in turn provoke stiff Israeli responses in Gaza, leading to a possible renewed conflagration.

PA threats

Hamas has recently been forced to tackle other domestic issues. On Wednesday, its security forces blocked a procession en route to the Erez crossing point, in the northern part of the Strip. The marchers were expressing solidarity with Palestinian security prisoners in Israel, some of whom have been staging a hunger strike for almost two weeks. Though Palestinian society accords much symbolic value to its prisoners, Hamas decided to block the march, which could possibly have led to a stand-off with IDF forces on the border.

That sequence also attests to the sea change around Gaza and Palestinian realities: While the PA makes threats about renewed conflict (confined, for the time being, to the diplomatic arena ), centering around its statehood initiative, Hamas has willingly adopted the policy of status quo stability in Gaza, and evinced criticism of Fatah's actions. Furthermore, some top Fatah figures have gone so far as to accuse Israel and Hamas of a form of strategic cooperation: Both Hamas and Israel oppose the PA's maneuver in the UN, and Hamas prisoners continue to receive meals, while it is Fatah inmates who carry out the hunger strike in Israeli prisons.

For their part, Hamas prisoners actually have good reason to be angry about the worsening of conditions by Israel - a step meant to pressure the Islamists on the matter of a Shalit release deal. Hamas prisoners are also not allowed to watch Arab satellite television stations, their academic studies have been stopped, and family visitation rights have been restricted (this applies to visits from West Bank relations; visits by Gaza residents have been banned for several years ).

Meanwhile, Hamas is perplexed by the success notched up by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in the international arena, and Hamas leaders are threatened by signs of rising support for Abbas among the Palestinian public. Suddenly, Fatah has stolen the mantle of heroic resistance, due to its strong opposition to the renewed U.S.-Israel alliance. Hamas was concerned that Abbas would also accrue political capital from the prisoners' strike, and so it decided to refrain from taking such action.

At the end of last week, Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, took part in a Tehran conference marking the "victory of the intifada" - specifically, the 11th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada. Meshal praised Iranian and Syrian activities in support of the Palestinians. His pro-Syrian pronouncements marked the culmination of a long period of equivocation in Hamas' leadership. Syria, which continues to host Meshal and his confederates in Damascus, has for some time pressured Hamas, calling on it to show public support for Assad's regime. Meshal hesitated, knowing that President Bashar Assad has been massacring members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is ideologically allied with Hamas. In his speech, Meshal attacked Israel and the PA, though he grudgingly articulated support for Abbas' resistance to American-Israeli pressure.

While Meshal lectured in Tehran, Abbas continued to make the rounds of other world capitals, trying to enlist support for the Palestinian bid to persuade Security Council members to ratify the statehood request (any Security Council vote of approval will be vetoed by the Americans ). At this stage, there doesn't appear to be a sign of significant change in the balance of power between the two organizations vying for hegemonic leadership in Palestinian society. The reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which was signed amidst great hoopla in Cairo just five months ago, retains only nominal status.

IDF coordination

In the meantime, the IDF has capitalized on the period of relative quiet in Gaza. It is reviewing and updating its operational plans for the possibility of escalated conflict, and is also reinforcing cooperation between its various branches. This can be seen in cooperation between the Gaza division and the air force and navy, which in the past operated in the Gaza theater without close coordination with ground forces.

Unusually for the IDF, there is now in the division a permanent coordinating officer overseeing ties with the air force. The officer, Lieut. Col. "Kfir," a combat helicopter pilot, says that his and his comrades' ongoing presence is upgrading connections with the force, and will expedite the use of planes and helicopters in the event of conflict; communications between Apache pilots and infantry officers are also improving.

Col. "Dror," commander of the navy's Ashdod base, is in charge of the sea craft that guard the Gaza coast. There is genuine concern about the possibility of ships disguised as Palestinian fishing vessels attempting to strike large infrastructure sites along the coast, in the Ashkelon and Ashdod areas. Yet Dror, striking a relatively accommodating chord heard elsewhere nowadays, talks about "the challenge of allowing Palestinian fisherman to live their ordinary lives in the region, while not disrupting our mission to prevent terror."

IDF intelligence officers currently speak of hundreds of Katyusha missiles that could be used on strikes against Be'er Sheva and Ashdod, along with dozens of rockets that could be fired against targets in central Israel. For the time being, Israel opts for restraint. "Each of our helicopters can within five minutes mark with an X any Hamas military target," says one top officer in the Southern Command, "but a decision about deploying [the helicopters] must take into account an array of complicated factors."

A review of the three most recent rounds of escalation in Gaza, in March, April and August, would show that Israeli policy contributed to the heightening of tensions. Right now, under orders from the political echelon, the army is opting for a policy of easing tensions.

Along with the logic that underlies this policy of moderation at a time when dangers mount on the horizon (a crisis in the territories? with Iran? ), IDF officers are also wary of the parallel to policy courses adopted by Israel on the eve of the Second Lebanon War. Before the summer of 2006, it appeared at times that the rational enemy on the other side had grasped the advantages of keeping the border quiet.