October 7, 2021. As it does each year, Israel severely limited operations at its crossings with Gaza during the Jewish holidays. Erez Crossing was shut down completely on five days and operated on a limited basis for an additional seven days in September, and Kerem Shalom Crossing was shut down completely for eight days.
On September 9, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced (Arabic) several changes to its access policy vis-à-vis Gaza, including expanding the trader permit quota to 7,000. Officials at Erez Crossing and the Gaza Chamber of Commerce told Gisha that as of the end of September, the number of valid trader permits held by Gaza residents was about 4,800, most of which are held by laborers traveling to work in construction and agriculture in Israel.
On October 5, the Gaza Chamber of Commerce announced (Arabic) that registration for new permits from Israel would be made available. To register, applicants must present their IDs and coronavirus vaccination or recovery certificate. Registration is free of cost.
The next day, rumor spread that the registration made available was for work permits, rather than trader permits. Gisha’s field coordinator in Gaza reports that in the early morning hours many thousands of people arrived at Chamber of Commerce branches across the Strip in the hopes of getting their names on the list. Later in the day, it became apparent that the registration was intended to fill the existing trader permit quota of 7,000 dictated by Israel. The branches announced yesterday that those randomly drawn from the list of registered applicants will be required to complete the permit application process and display relevant documentation to do so.
On September 14, some 45 truckloads of steel intended for construction entered the Strip for the first time since Israel’s attack on the Strip in May 2021. Palestinian sources told Gisha that Israel has begun allowing steel “rebar” intended for the private sector to enter Gaza outside of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). The GRM was instituted following the 2014 war, ostensibly to facilitate easier access to basic construction materials in Gaza, including gravel, cement and steel rods, in coordination with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and under UN supervision.
While one obstacle has been removed, the restrictions and bans Israel continues to impose on the entry of essential goods undermine recovery and reconstruction efforts. Maher Najjar, Deputy Director General of the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), told Gisha this week that large quantities of items needed to operate civilian infrastructure have been stranded in Israel ever since it closed the crossings on May 11. The items include spare parts essential for the operation of desalination stations, sewage treatment facilities and rainwater pumping, impeding preparations for flood prevention in the upcoming winter.
Over the past year, an acute shortage of steel pipes needed for the sewage and water infrastructure has developed in Gaza due to increased restrictions enforced by Israel. Najjar says the shortage is delaying infrastructure development projects started before the May hostilities and preventing repairs to wells and sewage facilities damaged during Israeli attacks in the Strip in May. The Gaza water authority is still awaiting Israel’s responses to requests that have been filed since May to bring in essential items.
In September, Israel lifted the full ban on the entry of items and equipment for Gaza’s communications infrastructure, including internet cables. Since May 11, Israel banned entry of all communications equipment to Gaza, including for the private sector. Restrictions on access to communication equipment were enforced prior to May as well, given that Israel considers any item defined as “communications equipment” to be “dual-use items,” which necessitate a long, complicated coordination process to be brought into the Strip. The restrictions on access to communications equipment were tightened further in February 2020, after a break-in at the warehouses of the Palestinian telecommunications company, Paltel, which Israel attributed to Hamas.
Sources from the communications sector told Gisha this week that the professional repair teams in Gaza lack the sufficient means needed to repair damage caused to communications infrastructure in the May 2021 attacks and had to do so with dated equipment. The complicated coordination process and the restrictions on entry of goods to Gaza make it impossible to provide advanced network services in the Strip. The shortages in the Strip raise concern that technicians will be ill equipped to handle possible infrastructure damage caused by rain over the winter.
Senior officials in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture have said that a possible expansion of the Gaza produce permitted for sale in Israel is under consideration due to the current “shmita” year, during which, according to Jewish tradition, the land must lay fallow. In 2015, the previous “shmita” year, Israel allowed the sale of Gaza-grown tomatoes and eggplant in Israel for the first time since 2007, subject to quotas. According to information received by Gisha, the expected expansion would include cucumber, pepper, zucchini, and sweet potato. Coordinating the exit of produce from Gaza is subject to clearance from Israel and produce must undergo phytosanitary inspections.
A source in the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture also confirmed this information. Testing of produce has already commenced. Gaza produce suppliers whom we spoke to this week relayed that they had sent samples of the produce they wish to sell in Israel. Each test costs 600-700 ILS (roughly 185-215 USD). It is still unclear if and when the marketing of the new types of produce will begin in practice.
Continued sales of Gaza-grown tomatoes in Israel is also shrouded in uncertainty as Israel has reinstated its demand to remove the tomato stems, which increases costs for suppliers’ and reduces their produce’s shelf life.