Why is Israel opening border crossings into Gaza this morning?

Despite the fact that IDF is continuing to prepare for an operation in Gaza, and that “projectiles” including Qassam rockets and mortal shells continued to fly into Israel on Thursday night, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered that several border crossings into Gaza be opened on Friday morning for the transfer of what Israel considers vitally-needed goods.

One reason is, of course, the explanation offered in the Israeli media this morning: An unnamed defense official said that “We will make every effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

So, from this it is possible to deduce that the situation is really, actually, pretty bad.

The goods that will be allowed into Gaza are not Israeli donations — they are either bought and paid for by the Palestinians themselves, or they are donations from the United Nations, the European Union, and other international or non-governmental organizations.

YNet is reporting Friday morning that “A security official said that despite Hamas’ conduct ‘we must keep mind that there are segments of the Palestinian population in Gaza which do not support terror, and we cannot neglect them”. Many voices have been calling on Israel to keep this in mind for well over a year.

The YNet story adds that this official said: “”The hardships of the civilians may not matter much to lecHamas, but we will make every effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis”.

The Israeli Defense Ministry is under obligation — according to a promise it made to the Israeli Supreme Court at the beginning of this year — not to allow a “humanitarian crisis” to develop.

It has not been clear, however, exactly what the Defense Ministry would understand as a “humanitarian crisis”. It would apparently necessarily involve deaths, according to Israeli-American Attorney Kenneth Mann, legal advisor to GISHA, an Israeli NGO which has fought [valiantly, but unsucessfully] in court to block the Israeli military-administered blockade on Gaza.

Today’s deliveries — if they actually take place, because, as the same YNet article reports, Brig.-Gen (Res.) Bezalel Treiber, head of the Crossings Directorate in the Defense Ministry, said that Israel “has various intelligence indicating that terror groups intend on targeting the crossings” — will supply “basic provisions, including sugar, rice and flour will enter Gaza. Five of the trucks will be carrying goods donated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s wife Suzanne” … [Question: what crossing will these enter through — will it be via Egypt through Rafah, which has been closed for months, but which Hamas wants opened?]

This YNet report can be read in full here .

The YNet report continues: “Wheat will be transferred into the Strip through the Karni crossing, and fuel trucks will enter through the Erez crossing”.

It is not clear if this is a journalistic or editorial error — the Erez crossing is only for human beings. The normal fuel transfer point is through a complex of underground pipes and storage tanks at the Nahal Oz crossing along the western border of central Gaza — but it is a point which has been particularly targetted for attack since last January.

According to an Associated Press report picked up and published elsewhere on YNet’s website, “The army said the first of an expected 90 trucks have started to deliver medicine, fuel, cooking gas and other vital goods on Friday to Gaza. Israel’s Defense Ministry agreed to open two of the three main cargo crossings into Gaza as part of its policy of avoiding a humanitarian crisis there. The move comes ahead of an expected Israeli incursion into Gaza to stop rocket launchings from the coastal strip. The crossings into Gaza were scheduled to be opened earlier in the week but were shut after Gaza militants bombarded Israel with the heaviest barrage of rocket fire since before an Egyptian-mediated truce took effect in June”. This report can be read in full here .

Some of the Jerusalem Post’s heavy-hitting correspondents (Herb Keinon, Yaakov Katz and unnamed others), with contribution from the AP news agency, reported on Friday that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided Thursday to open the Kerem Shalom and Sufa crossings to allow the transfer of the humanitarian supplies to Gaza. [Kerem Shalom is at the south-western tip of Gaza, where Israel, the Egyptian Sinai, and Gaza all intersect. Sufa is not far away, a little further north along the Gaza perimeter]. The shipment was originally scheduled to enter Gaza on Wednesday but was postponed due to the rocket fire. The Defense Ministry said the decision was made to permit the transfer after Barak received a number of requests from international organizations … Diplomatic officials said Thursday that while there was broad international condemnation of the Hamas attacks on Israel, there was also a great deal of concern about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. The officials also said that the barrage of rocket and mortar attacks over the last few days had not been covered that widely in the international press, which is currently focusing on Christmas holiday stories. Though an argument could be made that this would be a good time for a military operation, because much of the world is currently on vacation and not focusing on the Middle East, others say that because the world has not paid sufficient attention over the last two days to the pounding of the western Negev, any massive IDF attack now would seem inexplicable”. The full JPost report can be read here.

And some of Haaretz newspaper’s heavy-hitting correspondents (Amos harel, Barak Ravid and Avi Issacharoff, with contributions by various unspecified news agencies) wrote on Friday that “Reportedly, a ‘limited operation’ will begin within days that will combine an air attack with some ground operations against Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. The cabinet has given the go-ahead for an operation of a few days’ duration with clearly defined goals. On Sunday, the prime minister will hold a series of consultations ahead of a possible military action. No major move will apparently be made until these discussions have concluded … The meetings Olmert is expected to hold on Sunday will relate to three issues. The first is preparation of the home front: Olmert wants to know what reinforcement of buildings can be completed before military action is taken, and to urgently complete whatever can be completed in terms of reinforcement. The second issue involves humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza which Israel is to approve during the week. Olmert wants reports on stockpiles of essential items to ensure that a humanitarian crisis does not break out in the Strip during military action. The third issue involves diplomatic moves to garner international support for military action against Hamas. A government official in Jerusalem said there would be no moves before all necessary preparations are in place … Israel is planning a relatively short operation that will cause maximum damage to Hamas “assets.” The defense establishment says the operation would not necessarily limit itself to stopping rocket launches and that during the operation, daily massive rocket launches can be expected. Hamas might fire rockets with a range beyond the 20 kilometers it has used so far … Although Hamas operatives are behind most of the rocket launches, Palestinian sources in the Strip said Thursday that the Islamist group still wants to renew the cease-fire. The sources said Hamas is under pressure by Gaza residents and other factions to significantly improve the terms of the cease-fire, particularly regarding the opening of the crossings in light of the increased distress of the civilian population. The sources warned that an Israeli ground operation would result in many civilian casualties in Gaza, especially in the refugee camps … Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip Thursday there were long lines at bakeries, and sales were limited to NIS 3 [three shekels is less than one dollar, and is now worth maybe about 80 cents] worth of bread, less than a large family needs per day. Electrical power and water was cut several times Thursday. Cooking is difficult due to a gas shortage. ‘It is impossible to live like this’, a Gaza man told Haaretz. We have to come to some resolution – either a full cease-fire or full-scale fighting with Israel.” This Haaretz report can be read in full here.

Just on the cooking and other problems from daily life, Ma’an News Agency earlier this week published an article from Gaza that reported: “Some have begun mixing salt with gasoline and used the concoction as cooking gas; others have invested in the newly designed mud-stoves fueled with wood. Generators and solar panels are used when possible, and most are able to charge cell phones during the 8 hours of power supplied by either Israel or Egypt. As the Israeli blockade of Gaza tightens a strange mix of old and new has come to coexist in Gaza. Abu Ahmad, who recalls the war of 1948 and being displaced during the Nakba, says the current situation reminds him of life 60 years ago when his mother would make dinner in a refugee camp over a pile of wood. It is not uncommon to see someone tending supper over a mud-stove in the front of a home answer their mobile phone. This isn’t as strange as it seems, said Abu Ahmad. ‘We used to live without electricity or gas or anything’, he recalled, ‘but now people find it difficult to survive for too long without these things’. He has his own secrets for surviving the current situation, saying he adds nylon, paper and cardboard to his cooking fire to make the wood last longer. Um Salem described her struggle with the daily necessity of feeding her family. ‘It takes me six hours to cook!’ she said. So she wakes up at dawn to begin preparing the bread, since most bakeries are closed and she still has some flour left. The smell from the old paraffin burner she uses is awful, she explains, but with a baby around the home she refuses to use an open fire … The first time the electricity was cut, after gas ran out and before she had the paraffin stove was repaired, Umm Salem was in the middle of baking bread in the oven. ‘I went outside and collected as many old olive branches as I could and made a fire in front of the house’, she explained. ‘I put some papers and old sheets on the fire and just continued to cook the bread’. My family had to eat dinner, she shrugged. Umm Sami sighed and said, ‘The blockade controls everything, even what I make for dinner’.
Most life routines have been disrupted in Gaza. Doctors have reported seeing an increase in the number of skin irritations and rashes being diagnosed in infants, which are being attributed to the shortage of disposable diapers in the area. Since 2006 they have been named a prohibited item by Israeli authorities and have been smuggled in only through the tunnel network. Washing cloth diapers isn’t an alternative for many families, since several neighborhoods across Gaza face severe water shortages, and frequent disruption in water availability on account of poor maintenance of water lines. Repair equipment is unavailable. Services and products taken for granted my many are now unavailable to most Gazans. While almost anything can be smuggled into the area through the tunnels from Egypt, most cannot afford the high tariffs charged by smuggling traders. So from Pampers to Tylenol, Gazans, most of who are urbanites born and raised on modern convenience, are learning to live without; at least on a temporary basis”. This report can be read in full here.

The Foreign Press Association sent around a notice to its members on Friday morning saying that “We have just been informed [by the IDF] that the Erez Crossing [which is only for people, and not for goods] is open to journalists today until 2 p.m.”

Normally, the Erez Crossing is open until 8 p.m. every day — though it was closed for weeks in November and December.

The cargo crossings normally close on Friday for Shabbat and re-open on Sunday morning. Of course, a life-saving emergency could alter this schedule, under Jewish law …

Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who lived in Gaza for three years before moving to Ramallah in 1997, was able to return briefly by sailing across the Mediterranean with one of the recent Free Gaza expeditions that made a round-trip from and back to Cyprus. Amira, however, was deported by Hamas after a few weeks writing from Gaza, allegedly on the basis of concerns for her own security and safety. She was taken by Hamas and escorted to the Erez crossing, where she was promptly arrested and jailed by Israeli forces for violating a ban on travel of Israeli Jews into Gaza. She is still facing criminal charges in court.

This week, Amira wrote an article in Haaretz entitled: “The sewage is about to hit the fan in Gaza” , in which she reported that an artificial sewage lake in northern Gaza that overflowed catastrophically two years ago [in March 2007] during winter rains — drowning five people in the filthy water — has only continued to grow since then.

In her article this week, Amira reports that this one large sewage lake has only grown in size, and now covers “a total area of 350 dunams that is one kilometer long and contains 2.5 million cubic meters of effluent water with depth ranging from eight to 13 meters. The site of the lake overlooks an inhabited agricultural area of over 1,000 dunams with a population of 10,000. The dirt embankments surrounding the lake could collapse for a variety of reasons: heavy rainfall, stray Qassam rockets, mortars launched by the Israel Defense Forces, exchanges of gunfire … In 1976, Israel’s civil administration constructed a wastewater treatment plant in the northern Gaza district. It was intended to serve a population of 50,000 in the city of Jabaliya and to treat 5,000 cubic meters of sewage daily. After 1994, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Palestinian Authority connected additional regions in the northern Gaza Strip to the central sewage system and to the plant, which today serves a population of 250,000. Experts estimate that 18,000 cubic meters of sewage water reach the plant daily. The increase in volume has created two problems. The effluent water is not thoroughly treated and the accumulating amounts have produced an artificial lake whose heavy foul odor has spread over a wide area over the years. Between 2001 and 2004 alone, the level of water in the sewage lake rose by 2.5 meters. In the 1990s, the UNRWA and the PA commissioned preliminary surveys for the construction of a new sewage treatment facility. However, donor states left the project out of its funding programs until 2005. The completion of the emergency sewage project has been delayed since late 2005, although the original plans called for completing it within a year, that is, by the end of 2006. The delays are the result of a combination of factors: the election of a Hamas-led government in Gaza, the imposition of a boycott on that government, the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and the closure of border crossings … Because of the delays, contractors avoided bidding for the public tender that was issued in December 2006 for the construction of the new treatment facility; they feared that they would not be able to obtain the necessary construction materials. Next January, a new tender will be issued. It was only the disaster of March 2007 that led to the renewal of the emergency work and to Israel’s granting permission for the transport of raw materials and gasoline for the project into the Gaza Strip. Negotiations with the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on the introduction of specific components, most of them produced in Israel (such as 2- to 6-inch diameter pipes) went on for months. When security clearance was finally given [n.b., this happened only after the specifications were changed so that the pipes would be plastic, and not steel — which the Israeli military feared could be used to launch rockets], another few months passed before the Israeli bureaucratic mechanism operating the border crossings allowed the entry of these components. The military confrontation between Hamas and Fatah has also produced delays. ‘If we are lucky, after June 2009, we can begin construction of the treatment plant, which will be 25 times the size of the one that was constructed in 1976’, Ali [Palestinian Water Authority engineer Saadi Ali]said. ‘The construction work will take at least three years. However, the most urgent task is to empty the sewage lake’. If the electric power cuts stop, if the gasoline is supplied, if the electrical engineer expert from Bethlehem arrives and if the diesel fuel for the giant generators is provided, then, according to Ali, the ’emptying of the sewage lake can be carried out within eight months to a year’.
This is what he said in mid-November. Today, given the delay of more than a month in the initial operation of the pumping station, even that projection seems overly optimistic”.

Amira also reports in the article that “The long, frequent electric power cuts are much more than simply ‘inconvenient’. They are causing serious environmental harm that will also affect Gaza’s Israeli neighbors. The flooding of the region surrounding the sewage lake would not only endanger the lives of many people, it would also inflict damage on fields and fill the open irrigation wells with sludge that would immediately contaminate the aquifer. ‘About a month ago, the electric power cuts lasted between six and eight hours, and we tried to navigate our way around them’, Ali said in a telephone conversation with Haaretz on Monday from Gaza. ‘Today, every electric power cut lasts 12 hours, and the power is then supplied for six hours. Since there is a shortage of natural gas for cooking, many people use electricity – when it is available – and the current is too weak to operate the [pumping station’s] machines’ … Out of dozens of vital infrastructure projects, including those for sewage treatment, the drainage of rainwater, and the replacement of water pipes, this is the only one whose implementation Israel has permitted for the entire Gaza Strip. NGEST and NGWWTP is the only project Israel has defined as humanitarian, life-saving and one to which its policy on the shutting down of border crossings does not apply”.

This article can be read in full in Haaretz here.

And, of course, the winter rains have started in the region — which will both fill up the sewage lake and weaken its embankments.

[n.b. – A World Bank expert told me in a conversation recently after a conference on water held in Jerusalem that the IDF had on more than one previous occasion in previous years threatened to bomb this sewage lake if it released too much pollution into the Mediterranean Sea near the coastline Israel shares with Gaza. However, since Gaza’s power plant shut down last January due to a lack of fuel resulting from military-administered sanctions tightened against Gaza, some 30 to 40 million liters of untreated or partially treated waste water flows into the sea daily…]