The main road for the transportation of goods to Gaza is at the center of a fierce dispute between truck drivers and residents of the border communities, who say the vehicles are making the highway unsafe.
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Route 232 serves as a crucial link to the Kerem Shalom crossing and the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of large trucks use the road daily to bring goods to Gaza. The road connects to Route 4 and the center of the country, and is for the most part a two-lane highway. Local residents say these trucks cause huge traffic jams, lead to accelerated deterioration of the road and are responsible for numerous traffic accidents.
As a result, the police have set up a roadside stop near the Gaza crossing to check that the trucks are following regulations. In response, the truck drivers have gone on strike three times, disrupting the transfer of goods into Gaza.
Last week, following a series of traffic accidents, the Gaza border communities blocked traffic on Route 232 for the third time in the past few weeks. They led a slow convoy of vehicles down the road, which caused traffic problems in the morning and disrupted truck traffic on the road.
Residents want to find a solution to keep the trucks off all 80 kilometers (50 miles) of road, which ends at the Kerem Shalom crossing near the border with Egypt. They want the Karni crossing farther north to be reopened for the passage of goods to Gaza, as well as increased police enforcement against truck drivers along the road.
As a result of the public pressure and requests from the regional council, the police have started focusing on enforcement of traffic laws against the truck drivers: Their roadside station checks that the trucks meet safety and licensing rules, and conform with weight limitations for loads, said council officials.
The traffic police deny that they are conducting a special enforcement campaign, saying that they have not increased their presence on the road any more than usual.
On a normal workday, 600 to 800 trucks use the Kerem Shalom crossing, transporting over 20,000 tons of medical supplies, food and construction materials into Gaza.
The truck drivers’ protests against increased police enforcement have seriously affected the delivery of goods to Gaza. On March 16, the first day of disruptions, only 333 trucks delivered goods. And the next day, only 132 trucks delivered a mere 5,200 tons of supplies.
Last Sunday, the Defense Ministry attempted to find a partial solution to the problem and moved up by two hours the last hour that trucks delivering gravel can arrive. In response, truck drivers went on strike again, and only 334 trucks arrived at the crossing.
The Defense Ministry says the truck drivers are now satisfied with the solutions and have agreed to the new conditions.
The Or Yarok nonprofit, which promotes road safety, says that from 2003 to 2015, 24 people were killed on Route 232, 65 were seriously injured, while another 404 sustained moderate injuries. Some 211 traffic accidents occurred during these years, mostly head-on or front-side accidents, which Or Yarok says is a characteristic of accidents occurring at intersections.
Eshkol Regional Council also became involved, with Mayor Gadi Yarkoni meeting with Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz in an attempt to find a solution. Katz ordered that the road be closed to trucks at peak hours, but the plan never came to fruition.
The Defense Ministry torpedoed Katz’s decision because of the need to provide goods to Gaza; cutting back on truck usage of the road would have reduced the amounts that could be delivered every day, said Yarkoni.
In September 2014, after the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the cabinet voted to widen Route 232 – but the work has yet to commence.
Amit Sadeh, one of the leaders of the residents’ protest, said the fastest and best solution would be to prepare the more northern Karni crossing for the transfer of goods to Gaza. The Karni crossing has been closed for the past five years. “Opening crossings will bring about a significant easing of the traffic, so it is our preferred solution,” Sadeh said, adding that the widening of the road is not a good solution and would take years to complete.
The regional council’s official position is to advance both solutions simultaneously. Widening Route 232 is needed for regional development and is not just a solution to the truck problem. The road was built in the 1950s, when about 2,000 people lived in the entire region, and now the population has reached 15,000, say officials.
Samih Atiya, whose company operates 50 trucks, complained that “the police are coming down hard on the drivers, they are not letting people earn a living.” The drivers feel the police are trying to find any reason to issue tickets, he said. Two weeks ago, he continued, his trucks received 30 tickets – even though most of the trucks in his fleet are new.
Truck drivers say the main problem is the location of the police checkpoint, which is situated near the Kerem Shalom crossing. The drivers want to unload and leave as quickly as possible, Atiya noted. But the police keep the drivers waiting for hours to check the weight of the loads, amid other things. They should find somewhere else to do it, away from the border, he added.
The traffic police, meanwhile, reject the truck drivers’ claims. The police concentrate on issuing tickets and ordering trucks off the road only in cases of what they call “life-threatening” violations. Last week, they added, a number of overweight trucks were stopped, and one of these was more than 40 percent over the weight limit for its load. Drivers who were driving with suspended licenses were arrested, but no drivers with valid licenses were arrested, said the police.
The Defense Ministry noted the importance of the Kerem Shalom crossing, which “serves as the main crossing for bringing in humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. The Defense Ministry is taking various measures to reduce the truck traffic at peak times,” it added. The ministry also said it is working with other bodies and supports the solution proposed by the Transportation and Road Safety Ministry to widen the road.
Kerem Shalom is the only border crossing open for the transfer of goods to the Gaza Strip on a daily basis. The Erez crossing in the north serves only for the passage of people, ambulances and, in exceptional cases, humanitarian aid.