Militants Fire, Civilians Are Punished

The firing of rockets and mortar shells on towns in southern Israel from the Gaza Strip last week should be categorically condemned, since it targeted Israeli civilians or failed to distinguish between military and civilian targets. The perpetrators and the Hamas government which allows militant groups to fire from the territory under its control must be held accountable.

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s hasty response, however, declaring that Kerem Shalom would be closed until further notice, raised concern among those trying to transfer humanitarian supplies to Gaza. It was not clear whether the closure of the crossing was a legitimate measure in response to a real and concrete security risk to the crossing and those who work there, or if the Defense Ministry decided to react as it had in the second half of 2008: In the months leading up to the Gaza war, Israel closed the civilian crossings as punitive retribution for rocket fire, not as a response to a concrete security threat.

Residents of Gaza breathed a sigh of relief on Sunday, when Israel permitted the reopening of the Kerem Shalom Crossing and the resumption of a minimum level of supply to the Strip. The dependence on Kerem Shalom is so great because it is virtually the only goods’ crossing that remains open; every closure thus blocks the transfer of goods that are in short supply in Gaza because of the Israeli-imposed “minimum humanitarian standard”.

Since the closure of Gaza began in June 2007, Israel has systematically worked to restrict the operation of the Gaza Strip’s crossings – policies that reached a peak with the closure of the Nahal Oz crossing at the start of 2010. And so, at this time, with the exception of the grain conveyor at the Karni Crossing, the Gaza Strip is dependent on one crossing – Kerem Shalom – which was originally designed for the occasional transfer of humanitarian aid and which has limited capacity. Israel has even insisted that Egypt transfer all aid to the Gaza Strip coming from its territory via the Kerem Shalom crossing and not via its own crossing at Rafah. Last week, Egypt announced that it would permit supply from its territory only via Kerem Shalom. This dependence on Kerem Shalom is well-known to those who shoot at it and to those who allow the shooting to take place.

Israeli policies to restrict the operation of the Kerem Shalom crossing stand in violation of international agreements it has signed, which take into account situations where a security risk may occur at a particular crossing. In these agreements Israel committed to three basic principles that were intended to ensure that the Gaza Strip crossings would function on a continuous basis, even in the presence of real security threats: the operation of alternative lanes (lane redundancy) and alternative crossings (passage redundancy), as well as a commitment to the primary aim: the principle of continuous operation. Yet as of 2010, virtually all alternative crossings have been closed.

Since Israel insists on enforcing an almost total closure policy that leaves the Gaza Strip “on the edge” in every aspect of life (food, goods, electricity, cooking gas and more), every closure of the single crossing still permitted to operate, when already only minimum amounts are allowed through it, threatens to push Gaza over the edge.

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