The public uproar around Road 232, the sole route for transit of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, might ultimately benefit all residents of the area, but the road to a solution is long. Here’s what happened so far: Road 232 has eroded under the tires of tens of thousands of trucks making their way to and from the crossing that provides for the nearly 2 million residents of the Gaza Strip. Truck traffic on this road is a proven hazard, with traffic accidents causing death and severe injury over the years. Recently, heeding pressure from local residents, the Ministry of Transportation announced (Hebrew) it would limit truck traffic during rush hour, from 7AM to 9AM and from 3PM to 5PM.
This so-called solution circumvents more reasonable alternatives – fixing the road, streamlining security screening and operating conditions at Kerem Shalom Crossing (for example, allowing containers to be transported via the crossing), and opening another commercial crossing into Gaza. It also raises immediate and grave concerns regarding supply of food and other perishables to Gaza, the ability to get goods out of Gaza (most of the goods exiting for marketing and sale abroad are perishable produce), as well as how traders and consumers in the impoverished Strip would cope with ensuing price hikes new restrictions on access would likely cause.
On Sunday, the Jerusalem District Court granted the request of the Council of Transporters and Carriers (representing leading transport companies) and issued an interim order to effectively halt the implementation of the Transportation Ministry’s directive to limit truck traffic. A preliminary hearing on the petition, scheduled for today was been postponed to May 25th, after the state requested an extension in order to formulate its position, while consenting that the decision would not enter into effect in the interim.
In their petition, transporters and farmers argue that the decision to limit travel on Road 232 to certain times of day is an extreme decision, made in a non-transparent manner and without hearing the position of major stake holders or considering a reasonable adjustment period. They also state in the petition that without proper parking facilities, the implementation of the decision could be dangerous. Another main concern is that the decision would harm their livelihoods. Gisha asked to join the hearing as amicus curiae, to represent Gaza residents, a party not named in the petition, who would be severely harmed by the decision of the Ministry of Transportation.
In another development this week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that he had given instruction to open Erez Crossing, which for years has operated as a pedestrian crossing only, to the transport of goods as well. Such a step, which Gisha and others have long called for, could lessen pressure on Kerem Shalom and reduce transport costs (Kerem Shalom is located at the southern tip of the Gaza-Israel border fence, 60 km from Erez which is at its northern tip). The prospect of commercial transport in northern Gaza could facilitate a long-discussed idea to build a railway line between Erez and the Ashdod seaport, which would improve the viability of import and export. At the same time, the road between Ya’alon’s statements and the reality of commercial transport at Erez is also long.
In response to an official query from Gisha, the Land Crossing Authority of the Defense Ministry said that a preliminary assessment of the possibility of introducing another commercial crossing in the future was underway. “The assessment is in its initial phase”, the short response stated, “and, naturally, no decision has been made on this issue”. This was the situation a little over a month ago, on March 28. A preliminary assessment by Palestinian officials in Gaza revealed that in order to facilitate commercial traffic at Erez, infrastructure would need to be laid in northern Gaza, in addition to the actual building of a crossing point that could accommodate storage, security screening and hundreds of trucks passing every day on both sides of the crossing.
Kerem Shalom Crossing, as stated, is the sole commercial crossing point between Gaza and the rest of the world, and spans an area of some 600 dunam (~150 acres). The crossing has 11 separate cells, each with a capacity to hold 25 trucks at a time. The cells are separated by type of goods, and in them, the trucks are unloaded for security screening of their goods, which includes a visual inspection and inspection by dogs. Following the inspections, separate trucks enter the cell from the Palestinian side and collect the goods for placement on Palestinian trucks that take them into the Strip.
Kerem Shalom has a shipping container scanner donated by the Dutch government. A second scanner was installed in April. All trucks leaving the Gaza Strip are scanned using the device, as well as about 15% of the trucks entering Gaza, though there is still opposition to allowing actual screening of containers for which the scanners are built. Trucks that go through the scanner still have to be unloaded and undergo the visual and dog inspection before the goods can be loaded onto Palestinian trucks. About 700 trucks enter Gaza every day, and need keeps rising. The screening of each truck takes about 45 minutes. Meaning, to meet the daily volume, dozens of trucks need to be inspected simultaneously.
Officials in Gaza shared that goods were transported through Erez Crossing in the past. In the mid-1990s, there was an industrial zone on the Palestinian side of Erez, and goods were received there from Israel and from abroad via Ashdod Port, or transferred into the Strip by Palestinian trucks. Up until 2008, in the three years after the implementation of the Disengagement Plan, some goods were transported through Erez Crossing when Karni Crossing (which was completely shut down in 2011, after it had been mostly closed in 2007) was closed for security reasons. The Erez industrial zone was demolished as part of the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.
Gisha asked to join the petition cited above in order to provide wider context for the deliberations and clarify that whatever decision is made, its effect on Gaza’s residents must be taken into consideration. Israel has an obligation to ensure normal life in Gaza due to the control it maintains over civilian life there, and especially given its control of the sole commercial access point into and out of Gaza. It’s a good opportunity to remind of the need for a multiplicity of crossings and for the authorities to get on those plans to build another crossing point in the northern Gaza Strip without delay.