Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Crux of Gaza Cease-Fire: Border Crossings

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Crux of Gaza Cease-Fire: Border Crossings

Article excerpt

After everything that Gazans lost in the past month of war, there is at least one thing many are hoping to gain - and which international aid providers say they must have: better access to the outside world.

Whether the cease-fire continues depends in large part, Hamas officials say, on whether Israel agrees to open the crossings it controls to Gaza. International agencies pushing to get more aid into the strip say there is still an insufficient flow of materials and a total absence of those that would help Gaza rebuild.

The demand to open the borders and end the virtual embargo on Gaza - levied since Hamas was elected in a parliamentary vote three years ago and more forcefully applied when it took over in a June 2007 coup - will be a key facet of revved-up cease-fire negotiations as Washington's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, arrives in Egypt on Tuesday.

With the world's eyes on the nightmarish remains of war, many voices are pointing to the unsustainability of turning Gaza into an isolated pariah state as a way to push Palestinians closer to peace with Israel.

"Unless the crossing points open, what we have are basics that are only keeping people alive. Miserable, but alive," says John Ging, the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main United Nations agency dealing with aid to Palestinians.

"There's a lot of money out there, available to be used for help, but what needs to happen is to get the crossings open," says Mr. Ging. "There are thousands of tons of aid waiting to get in, boxes and boxes of it. They're in Egypt, they're in Jordan, and they're also in Israel. We have been sitting on $97 million budgeted to us for the past year-and-a-half, but we can't get the supplies in so we don't spend it."

Since the cease-fire a week ago Sunday, Israel has been gradually admitting more supplies, enabling the transfer of humanitarian goods and some aid workers through three of the five active crossings it controls: Kerem Shalom, Nahal Oz, and Erez. Since the beginning of the war, Israel says it has allowed 70,035 tons of humanitarian supplies into Gaza.

Unilateral cease-fires were holding by a thread after one Israeli soldier was killed and three wounded in a roadside bomb Tuesday; a Palestinian was also killed and one Gaza militant wounded following the bombing. Israel had said it would allow in food, medicine, and other essentials, but after the attack, Israel temporarily sealed its crossings.

Since the cease-fires were declared, Israel has ruled out fully opening crossings or letting in heavier materials - such as cement - for reconstruction.

"At the moment, the priority is given for the urgent stuff: food, medical supplies, and other basics," says Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman. "But we are not willing to rebuild Hamas's bunkers and underground tunnels, and we're not willing to help give them materials to transform into rockets to fire at us. …

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