The Palestinian business community in the Gaza Strip is calling the Israeli decision to close the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza to all but humanitarian aid the final nail in the coffin of Gaza’s industry and trade. The results, traders told Haaretz Tuesday, will be devastating to the civilian population.
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel will close the Kerem Shalom crossing over the airborne firebombs launched at Israel and the weekly protests along the border over the past few months.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called the step "a new crime against humanity" that violates international law and human rights.
"Israel seems to think that businesspeople have power to influence the Hamas political or military leadership, an idea that is nothing more than an illusion without a basis in reality," a number of Gaza traders told Haaretz.
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Kerem Shalom is the only crossing for goods into the Gaza Strip. There are two other crossings, but their use is limited: the Erez crossing is used for people only, while the Rafah crossing, on the border with Egypt, opens from time to time to allow the passage of goods and construction materials.
“If Hamas decides to bring about a conflict how can I or others prevent it? That’s absurd, no one can influence Hamas because it is a strategic policy decision,” said Dr. Maher al-Tabaa of the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Gaza. "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also thought that by imposing sanctions on the Gaza Strip he could lead to an internal uprising or apply pressure, but it didn’t work," he added.
"It is Gaza’s civilian population and businesspeople who will suffer, and this is collective punishment," said Tabaa.
Tabaa emphasized that the Gazan economy, which relies on goods that come through Kerem Shalom, is already in a serious economic crisis. “We have heard from the media in recent weeks that the entire world is talking about aid for Gaza and projects to improve the situation. Even if all these are just declarations, it has given us a sort of hope that something is beginning to move but regrettably, instead of receiving aid we are being suffocated even more."
"The situation in Gaza is like that of a dying man who they now decide to just shoot straight in the head,” he added.
The closing of the Kerem Shalom crossing will severely harm exports from Gaza, both agricultural and industrial, the Gaza Chamber of Commerce warned. At the same time, businesses that ordered goods or raw materials through the Ashdod port or from the West Bank will face enormous losses and will find themselves seriously short of cash – leading to unemployment even higher than today’s 49 percent.
Israel's decision comes in response to Israeli fields and forests near the Gaza border being set ablaze in recent weeks by incendiary kites and helium-filled balloons launched from the Strip.
Israel has accused Hamas of stoking violence in an attempt to deflect domestic opinion from Gaza's energy shortages and faltering economy.
The IDF Spokesman's Office said in a statement that the crossing was being shut "in light of the continuation of arson terrorism and other terror attempts" lead by Hamas, and that the step had been recommended to Netanyahu by the IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
Gaza fishermen, who provide a lifeline to a population that is 90 percent below the poverty line, will also be limited to fishing just six nautical miles out to sea, rather than nine miles as had been permitted for the season until Monday, the Israeli army said.
Mohammed Abu Jiyab, an expert on the Gaza economy and magazine editor, said the closure of Kerem Shalom "will lead to the collapse of an economy already in crisis, bankrupt many businesses in the strip, and cost a loss of jobs that will worsen unemployment and seriously hurt the service sector."
The decision to close Kerem Shalom will seriously harm the textile industry in Gaza, which had actually begun to recover over the past three years, Tayseer al-Austath, the chairman of the Palestinian Federation of Garment, Textile and Leather Industries in the Gaza Strip told Haaretz. “After the war in 2014, we began contacts with companies in Israel and the West Bank and succeeded in bringing back quite a few factories into the jobs market, and every day goods left for Israel and the West Bank.”
Now much of these goods are stuck at the crossing and the market in Gaza cannot absorb this quantity of clothing, he said. The closing of the crossing “could damage the trust of the Israeli companies and they will be afraid of working with us in the future even though we worked hard to restore that trust,” added Austath.
A number of businessmen turned to the United Nations special peace envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov as well as Israeli companies asking them to try to influence Israeli leaders to reverse their decision – because Gaza businessmen have no influence over Hamas, said Austath.
“I am concerned by the consequences of Israel’s decision to temporarily suspend imports and exports with the exception of basic humanitarian supplies through the Kerem Shalom crossing," Mladenov said in a statement published Tuesday. "Humanitarian assistance is no substitute for commerce and trade. I urge the authorities to reverse this decision. Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Gaza should also do their part by maintaining calm, stopping incendiary kites and preventing other provocations.
"The United Nations is continuing its engagement with Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, as well as regional and international partners, to reduce tensions, support intra-Palestinian reconciliation and resolve all humanitarian challenges. This latest development must not divert us from this urgent course of action. Everyone must step back from the trajectory of confrontation and escalation.”
Gaza agriculture will also suffer severely, a Gaza farmer told Haaretz. He was supposed to have sent four trucks of potatoes to Jordan but he is now stuck with them. They cannot be sold inside Gaza and because of electricity shortages he cannot refrigerate them for storage.
“If within a few days we don’t move the goods it will all go into the garbage or we will simply distribute it to people for free, but for a farmer like me this is a very severe loss,” he said.
The Palestinian Chamber of Commerce said the Rafah crossing with Egypt sometimes allows the entry of goods, but this crossing will never be a replacement for Kerem Shalom, especially as Gazan traders work mostly with the port in Ashdod or the Palestinian market in the West Bank or inside Israel.
Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israel has refrained from closing the Kerem Shalom crossing, with the exception of one day when it was closed in response to the firing of rockets and another day, in April, after Palestinian rioters set fire to buildings on the Gazan side of the compound.