Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Israel faces Hamas rule in Gaza

Territories tense as disruptions plague power, food, borders

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 - Page A3

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- While Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, moved Monday to lift sanctions against the Palestinian Authority -- partly in the hopes of reopening peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- Israeli leaders now have to grapple with the practical implications of the Hamas conquest of the Gaza Strip.

Most immediately, Israel faces a potential humanitarian crisis confronting the territories' 1.4 million inhabitants.

This was apparent Monday at the Erez crossing, the main crossing between Gaza and Israel, where at least 150 men, women and children have been stranded for two days without food and water in blazing heat.

"We have no milk, water or food. My child's milk is running out. We have no money. We are under siege," said one 22-year-old woman who had been waiting with her 3-month-old baby since Saturday for permission to cross Israel and reach her family in the West Bank. "We can't return to Gaza. My husband is threatened, that is why we are trying to run," said the woman, who would not give her name.

Stranded residents gathered in the concrete tunnel that links the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the border crossing until Monday evening, when Palestinian gunmen from the radical Popular Resistance Committees attacked them and the Israeli positions beyond with machine guns and hand grenades. At least two people were reportedly killed, including a senior Fatah security officer.

Israeli Justice Minister Daniel Friedman said the residents should be allowed through to the West Bank. "Israel should ease their passage, as long as they are not Hamas people or endanger Israeli security," he said.

But Guy Bechor, head of Middle Eastern studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, disagreed. "As soon as we let one of them through, millions will want to follow," he said.

And the trouble at the border is just one of many problems.

Thousands of Gazans used to work inside Israel, but since the second Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000, the border has been closed to all but a few. Since then, unemployment inside the Gaza Strip has reached as high as 50 percent. In addition, Israeli reprisals for Palestinian terror attacks have destroyed roads, power lines and factories suspected of producing bombs and rockets.

Israeli security measures against arms smuggling include the closure of the local airport and a frequent ban on fishing. Under the economic clauses of the 1994 Oslo Peace Accords, all goods imported to Gaza must first pass through Israel, which also supplies the coastal strip of territory with fresh water, electricity, fresh fruit and vegetables, medical supplies and gasoline.

The immediate consequence of last week's Hamas coup was the cessation of these essential supplies. Thousands of tons of fresh fruit and vegetables were destroyed, causing shortages inside the Strip. Dor Alon, the private gasoline company that supplies fuel for vehicles and operates Gaza's only power plant generating electricity, halted supplies Sunday when officials found they were unable to contact their Palestinian colleagues on the other side. The flow resumed Monday.

But while there were calls for Israel to move food and medical supplies into Gaza, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the minister of infrastructure, said Israel should restrict the movement to just one crossing, via the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border.

"I am stopping everything until I understand what is going on there," said Ben-Eliezer.

But Egypt may not be willing to pick up the slack, following the failure of a power-sharing agreement it had tried to broker between Hamas and Fatah.

"Israeli illusions aside, neither Egypt nor Jordan is about to take over responsibility for, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank, thereby letting Israel off the hook," wrote Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the respected bitterlemons.org, a joint Israeli-Palestinian Web site.

Meanwhile, there were reports that Israel is contemplating a major military assault on Gaza should the newly empowered Hamas escalate attacks from the territory. While there appeared to be no immediate plans for such an invasion -- despite the resumption of rocket attacks on Israeli territory Monday night -- some observers think a military operation is probably unavoidable over the long term.

"Eventually, I'm afraid, Israel will be forced to initiate a comprehensive operation against this Iranian military base which is being established on our southern border," said Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of Israel's parliamentary committee for defense and foreign affairs. "We must dictate the circumstances of that operation and not be dragged into it by developing events."

Bechor, however, called for Israel to "disengage" completely from Gaza.

"There are processes in the Middle East which little Israel is unable to change," he said. "Alongside political Islam is a process sweeping the entire Middle East. Israel cannot stop it. The rise of Shia Islam and the fall of Sunni Islam. The collapse of Arab nationalism -- in this case of Palestinian nationalism.

"These are unstoppable processes, and all Israel can do is defend herself. We are doomed if we try to become involved in these huge processes."

This article appeared on page A - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

No comments: