There is a serious shortage of basic foodstuffs and building materials in the Gaza Strip because the Karni cargo crossing has been out of commission since May 11. In the six weeks before it shut down, it operated only partially.

The Palestinians disabled the crossing at the behest of trade organizations and farmers in the Strip. They objected to the Israel Airports Authority proposal to allow cargo into the Strip but to freeze the exit of agricultural and industrial products. The Palestinians demanded that both sides agree on the priorities for cargo entering the Strip, otherwise their market is flooded with less essential products and huge amounts of fruit, for example, that fits the needs of Israeli farmers and distributors.

Palestinian sources said representatives of the Palestinian-Israeli civilian liaison committee reached an agreement last week, in coordination with the IDF and the Shin Bet, to renew full operation at the crossing. It was agreed that cargo be allowed into the Strip and textile products be allowed out, primarily into Israel, while vegetables, cookies and ice-cream would leave for the West Bank.

Priority entrance would be given to basic foodstuffs and dairy produce, construction materials and animal feed. The crossing's opening yesterday was delayed "because of disagreement between the Airports Authority and the IDF and Shin Bet" according to Abu Salim Abu Safiye, the Palestinian official in charge of the crossings.

The shortage in foodstuffs has led to high prices in some stores on rice, flour, sugar, oil and raw materials. A bakery owner in Jabalya says if the crossing is not operating by next week, bakeries will close down for lack of flour.

One of the main food importers in the Strip, Taysir Al-Safadi, told Haaretz his warehouses are empty. Like other importers, he pays a great deal of money to store in Israel foodstuffs he purchased overseas - 10 containers in Ashdod, 300 tons of rice and corn oil in Haifa and three truckloads of rice, coffee and tea bought in Egypt.

In the months before Karni closed, transport rates rose because the work load at the crossing slowed down. According to Abu Safiye, the Airports Authority operated only a small fraction of the 34 "filtering cubicles" - where cargo is checked and unloaded from one truck to another - and of the eight X-ray machines. As a result, trucks on the Israeli side had to wait their turn for days.

Rice shipments which Safadi bought waited for 17 and 21 days, he said. He was forced to dump about eight tons of rice spoiled by heat and humidity. Merchants report paying between NIS 9,000-12,000, instead of NIS 3,000, for transporting two containers by truck from Ashdod to Karni because of the lengthy wait.

Safadi owns a tehina and halvah factory and says it costs $20 to transport a ton of sesame from Ethiopia to Haifa Port, and another $85 to get it to Gaza. That's why wholesale prices are up.

A spokesperson for the Airports Authority said: "In accordance with the prime minister's decision, responsibility for closing or opening the Karni crossing belongs to the defense minister. The Palestinians do not allow entry of cargo from Israel into Gaza on grounds of a lack of mutuality."