The sad state of the Rafah Crossing

The EU Representative to the Palestinian Authority, Christian Berger, said in an interview in East Jerusalem that the EU stands ready, if asked, to “come back and resume the tasks of monitoring the [Rafah] crossing point”.

As part of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, a bilateral agreement between Israel, after its unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the EU played a required “Third Party” monitoring role in what they named their EU Border Assistance Mission, or EUBAM.  The Europeans tweaked the mandate, however, to include provision of assistance in the form of Palestinian capacity-building.

Asked if there needs to be a new agreement, now that Egypt has made an apparently unilateral decision to open its only border crossing with Gaza, via Rafah, Berger replied that this “has to be discussed with the parties, to find what they want and what they need.  Again, the European Union has offered its assistance.  So, if it’s seen necessary, if it’s seen useful, they we are ready to do this.  And we still have a small contingent in Ashkelon that can be deployed and can be expanded, if necessary, to the size as it used to be before the closure of Rafah”.

Berger said: “One important element of the agreement was that the Israeli authorities would be informed of what was going on at the crossing point.  This was partly through live feed video transmissions, and partly through on-line computer transmissions of all the ID card numbers of people who were crossing, in either way.  But, it’s an integral part of the agreement, so when these transmissions — or the work of the liaison office in Kerem Shalom — was not possible, then the border post had to be closed.  That’s an integral part of the agreement”.

The liaison office was staffed by a tripartite group of Palestinians, Israelis and Europeans.  It was  located at Kerem Shalom, near where IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured in a raid from Gaza in late June 2006, just six months after the Agreement went into effect.  Shalit is still being held, reportedly somewhere in Gaza.

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The Elders enter Gaza via Rafah

The Elders have entered the Gaza Strip today via the Rafah crossing from Egypt, after holding talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Husni Mubarak.

CORRECTION: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is apparently not with the group in Gaza, but will instead join them later.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson — who subsequently served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights — is in Gaza as Delegation leader of this group. In her time as High Commissioner, Mary Robinson being driven in a UN vehicle when it was fired upon while touring areas under Israeli control during the height of the second Palestinian intifada.

She noted in a statement today that “I was last here in 2008, just before the Gaza war. The situation has deteriorated to a shocking extent since then. This is not a humanitarian crisis – it is a political crisis and it can be solved politically. It is unconscionable and unacceptable that Israel and the international community have not lifted the blockade fully to allow Gazans to rebuild their lives and be part of the interconnected world that we take for granted. The easing of the blockade may mean more goods can be imported, but people are not free to come and go, reconstruction materials are still highly restricted, there is no real economy to speak of, and I have no doubt that things are not just stagnant – they are going backwards.”

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EU may form new maritime mission for Gaza

It now appears, two weeks after the Israeli naval raid on the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza, that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space will only be strengthened, with European and American help to engage in a complicated inspection regime in the Mediterranean Sea — while Israeli military-administered sanctions against Gaza via its land crossings will be somewhat eased.

Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, told a special session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, concerning the situation in Gaza, that “It will not be easy to find an agreed way to lift the blockade”…

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Meanwhile, in Gaza…(cont'd more)

The Israeli Air Force reports that it has attacked Gaza tonight, targetting what it said was a group of Palestinians launching rockets toward Israel. The IAF said that one person was killed, and four injured. There have been Israeli reports of sporadic firing from Gaza in recent weeks.

Earlier today, Gaza’s former parish priest, Father Manuel Musallam, told me in an interview in his home in the West Bank town of Bir Zeit today, outside Ramallah, that he fears a renewed Israeli attack on Gaza. Father Musallam spent 14 years serving the Catholic Church in Gaza, and endured the unprecedented Israeli military attack last winter before being pulled out, by Church authorites, into what appears to have been a forced retirement last May, the day before the Pope arrived in the Holy Land. “I had written to the Pope to come to Gaza, to say NO to the suffering of Gaza, to the deaths and the injuries and the fear and the hunger and the thirst of the people of Gaza”.

Father Musallam expressed indignation that in a report on the important events of the year 2009, the Church (here, apparently, headed by Patriarch Fouad Twal) said that the visit of the Pope was the most important event. “This was a big mistake”, said Father Musallem. “The Church neglected to say that the Church of Palestine suffered the war on Gaza — I was there, and I say that that was the most important fact of 2009”.

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Richard Goldstone due in region this weekend to begin hearings on Gaza war

Until the last minute, it was not clear how South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone would arrive in the region this weekend with a mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to begin an inquiry into the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead against Gaza (27 December – 18 January), or whetherIsrael will or will not let him enter the country, if he tries to come here.

Israel — which often prefers ambiguity — apparently did not reply to Goldstone’s request for a visa.

The mission’s mandate is to “investigate all violations of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.”

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Palestinian Full Circle

Laila El-Haddad wrote yesterday on her blog, in a post entitled “I was born Palestinian”, that “Last year, my parents were visiting us from Gaza City when Rafah was sealed hermetically. They attempted to fly back to Egypt to wait for the border to open — but were not allowed to board the plane in Washington. ‘Palestinians cannot fly to Egypt now without a visa, new rules’, the airline personnel explained, ‘and no visas can be issued until Rafah is open’, added the Egyptian embassy official. They were in a conundrum, aggravated by the fact that their US entry stamp had reached its six-month limit. Eventually, they got around the issue by obtaining an Egyptian tourist visa, made easier by their old age, which they used to wait in Egypt for one month until Rafah Crossing opened again. I did not want to repeat their ordeal, so I called the embassy this time, which assured me the protocol had changed. Now it was only Palestinian men who were not allowed to fly to or enter Egypt; women were allowed and could get their visa at the Egyptian port of entry. I was given a signed and dated letter (6 April 2009) by the consul to take with me in case I encountered any problems. It read: ‘The Consular Section of the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt hereby confirms that women, who are residents of the Gaza Strip, and who hold passports issued by the Palestinian Authority are required to get their visa to enter Egypt at Egyptian ports and NOT at the various Egyptian consulates in the United States on their way to the Gaza Strip for the purpose of reaching their destination (i.e. Gaza Strip)‘ …”

Two long-haul flights and one seven-hour transit later, we made it. I knew the routine by heart. Upon our arrival, I was quick to hit the bank to buy the $15 visa stamps for my children Yousuf and Noor’s American passports and exchange some dollars into Egyptian pounds. I figured it would help pass the time while the lines got shorter. I then went and filled out my entry cards. An officer came and filled them out with me seeing my hands were full, a daypack on my back, Noor strapped to my chest in a carrier, Yousuf in my hand. We submitted our passports and things seemed to be going smoothly. Just then the officer explained he needed to run something by his superior. ‘You have a Palestinian passport. Rafah crossing is closed’ …

We posted on 10 April about Laila’s ordeal as it was happening, due to her use of Twitter to provide updates to the world, in an earlier post a href=”http://un-truth.com/blogging/blogger-deported-back-to-us-after-trying-to-go-home-to-gaza-via-egypt”>here.
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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…]