Israeli Military Recommends Easing Gaza Border Restrictions, Opening Crossings

Move will strengthen Gaza’s economy and help achieve long-term quiet, senior defense officials say.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel.
The Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Senior Israel Defense Forces officers have recommended to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon that the opening of border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip be expanded.

One recommendation would allow thousands of Palestinians to travel abroad by entering Israel via the Erez crossing and leaving the country to Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. Another would permit merchandise into Gaza through the Karni crossing and expand use of the Kerem Shalom crossing. In addition, permits would be issued for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to work in Israeli communities near the border.

A year after the Gaza war, the IDF says that Hamas has been left without real achievements from the fighting and is politically isolated, with its ties with Egypt strained. Precisely for these reasons senior defense officials believe that Israel could help achieve relatively long-term quiet by easing economic restrictions and some limitations on the passage of people and goods from the Gaza Strip.

The move could have added value in reducing international criticism of Israel over its closure of the Gaza Strip (although in fact, a good deal of the closure has to do with Egyptian policy of closing the Rafah crossing into Egypt for most of the year).

It is believed that easing economic restrictions will push ahead repairs of damage from IDF bombardments last year and will help reduce the risk of another war. “As long as the basic economic problems in Gaza remain, we will also have the potential for renewed military conflict, without connection to the extent of deterrence achieved in the last war,” a senior officer on the General Staff said Tuesday.

Since the end of the war in Gaza in August 2014 and until May of this year, some 70,000 people have crossed into Israel through the Erez crossing, and the intent is to increase this number considerably. The Karni crossing, near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which has been closed for the past four years, would be reopened according to the recommendation, and more goods would enter the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom crossing, through which 550-600 trucks now pass daily into the Strip. A few thousand Gazans would be allowed to enter Israel to work in border settlements.

The change in policy would depend on the agreement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the security cabinet. At this point it seems that understanding is growing among politicians of the need for steps in this direction, but it is unclear if or when this will be translated into practical moves.

President Reuven Rivlin said Monday at a memorial ceremony for those killed in last summer’s war: “The rehabilitation of Gaza is also an Israeli interest, but the only condition for this rehabilitation is that Gaza cease being a front for attacks on Israel.”

Even Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), at the right side of the spectrum in the previous security cabinet, which served during the war, said in an interview on Channel 2 News in late June: “The time has come to initiate an international move to rehabilitate Gaza.”

Meanwhile, Ya’alon Tuesday for the first time joined in Israeli accusations of collaboration in fighting Egypt between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai. Speaking at the end of his meeting with Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti in Rome, Ya’alon said: “Hamas is fighting against a branch of ISIS, but on the other hand, it is cooperating with ISIS in Sinai to harm Egypt. These are facts that are known to us and they were also seen in the murderous attacks in Sinai last week.”

Since last week’s attack, in which dozens of members of the Egyptian security forces were killed, Israel has been publicly stressing connections between Hamas military wing activists, especially in the southern Gaza Strip, and ISIS. IDF officers explain that making these connections public, such as the movement of weapons back and forth between Sinai and Gaza, serves not only as a warning to Egypt but also to convey to the Hamas political wing that Israel takes a dim view of the over-independence on its military wing – and to Iran, which although it supports the military wing, is unlikely to approve of cooperation between Hamas and the extremist Sunni ISIS.

Officers on the IDF General Staff believe that although Egypt stopped the ISIS terror offensive in Sinai and took back control in northern Sinai, ISIS leaders regard the assault as a success in its attempts to cause casualties to the Egyptian forces and undermine stability.

Israel did not respond to the firing of rockets by ISIS from Sinai to the southern Negev over the weekend, because it does not want to infringe on Egyptian sovereignty. At this point it prefers to make do with security cooperation to Egypt, and to leave military action in Sinai to Cairo.

Egypt is currently deploying 17 infantry and tank battalions in Sinai, and is attacking concentrations of Islamist extremists with F16 fighter aircraft and Apache helicopters. These actions contravene the security addendum to the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, but Israel agreed to them ahead of time following Egypt’s request, considering that it would help Egypt’s fight against ISIS and other extremist groups.

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