Kerem Shalom: Crossing Into Hostile Territory
KEREM SHALOM CROSSING, Israel—At first glance the labyrinth of somber, gray walls seems like a dystopian truck stop built of concrete. It is populated with tough men and their tools: truck drivers waiting for passage, busy workers driving forklifts, and heavily armed security guards leading their explosive-sniffing attack dogs. An oddly unvaried collection of goods and animals seems sparse in the shadow of the massive walls.
Nothing of the outside world is visible once you’re inside.
This is Kerem Shalom border crossing—the only operational point of transfer for goods between Israel and Gaza. On one side is the State of Israel. On the other is Hamas and almost 1.8 million Palestinian residents who are severely limited in their movement.
The prison-like experience of being inside Kerem Shalom is typical of land border crossings in this part of the world, where tensions often run as high as the temperature. But Gaza is a special case. Bordered on the west by the Mediterranean, the south by Egypt, and the north and east by Israel, the 50-mile long strip of land has been under a tight air, land, and sea blockade since 2006.
On a recent day in May as the hot sun beat down, nothing but a perfect blue sky could be seen from within the three-story-high walls encapsulating Kerem Shalom. Inside is a series of 12 distinct chambers, called “rooms,” that serve as holding areas for goods on their way in both directions, mostly to Gaza.
One room held a few truckloads of fat, depressed-looking cattle on their way to slaughter. Another held flatbed trucks with just enough cement bags on each to build a house. A smaller room held tanks with cooking gas for transfer. One of the largest rooms was filled with row upon row of rough, twisted barbs of scrap metal that had been compressed into perfect, symmetrical squares.
Israeli and Palestinian workers from Gaza rotate their schedules here so they never work alongside each other. Yet according to the crossing’s General Manager Ami Shaked, there’s no bad blood.
“We don’t limit them, it’s pure business,” said Shaked, who works for the overseeing entity, the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD). “It is not humanitarian aid.”
Despite Shaked’s professed capitalistic altruism, the area remains intensely hostile territory. Kerem Shalom crossing is a mere quarter-mile from Gaza: just 15 minutes on foot. When one of the fairly regular sirens wails to warn of an incoming rocket, workers have only five seconds to take cover.
Shaked, an Israeli in his mid-fifties, has perfected a sense of calm bravado about his unusual workplace.
“I can’t be sure tomorrow I won’t be in the hospital, but we do all we can,” he said.
According to Oxfam International, the near-decade blockade on Gaza has significantly impacted the area’s economic and personal freedom. With 75,000 displaced persons due to damage from rockets and bombs in wartime, building materials such as cement and steel are critical. Oxfam estimates that only 8.5 percent of homes destroyed in the last war in 2014 have been rebuilt and that a whopping 80 percent of the population depends on international aid—in large part due to limited movement of goods through crossings into Gaza.
Though international humanitarian organizations have harshly criticized the impact of the blockade on Gaza, Shaked doesn’t seem to be part of the problem.
Last year, he and crossing workers oversaw the passage of almost 95,000 trucks filled with goods ranging from food to building materials, according to United Nations figures. The Israeli government states that about 500–800 trucks a day are allowed to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The number of trucks peaks and dips depending on if there is war, as there was in 2014.
During times of relative calm, business can be good. At about $100 per vehicle for an average truck crossing fee, last year Kerem Shalom generated a hefty $9.5 million in revenue. The MOD would not disclose the cost of operating the facility.
The crossing is part business venture, part security measure. Gaza is ruled with an iron fist by the terrorist organization Hamas, the main source of the semi-regular conflict and military aggression toward Israel.
The presence of Hamas means that sometimes smugglers try to pass through illegal or suspect materials such as welding equipment or chemicals that could be used for rocket fuel. Despite that, compared to the way other crossings to Gaza operate, Kerem Shalom is a vital lifeline.
Farther to the south at the border with Egypt, the Egyptian government only opens Gaza’s Rafah Crossing for limited periods of a few days at a time. Egypt’s relations with Hamas worsened after President Mohammed Morsi was unceremoniously ousted in 2013, leading to Rafah’s closure.
The proximity of Hamas to the devolving situation in the Sinai, the neutral region between Israel and Egypt that experts now describe as a “war zone,” has muddied the waters even further. Gaza’s border with Egypt is in the Sinai, where last month six Egyptian soldiers were killed and six more were wounded by a roadside bomb.
At best, Hamas ideologically supports ISIS loyalist factions in the Sinai. At worst, they contribute to the flow of weapons, manpower, and training through elaborate underground tunnels and other forms of illegal passage.
Erez Crossing, at the north end of Gaza bordering Israel, has been closed to the movement of goods since 2008. Only foreigners and Israelis with special permission are allowed access. Despite this, Shaked and the Israeli government consistently whistle a fairly happy tune about the quality of life of Gazans.
“They are not starving,” said Shaked. “They have no good life, but they are not starving.”
Kerem Shalom is but one of more than two dozen heavily guarded, military-style crossings that separate Israel from neighboring territories and countries including Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Many crossings are only for the movement of goods, diplomats, foreigners, those with special permission, military or U.N. personnel, or multinational peacekeeping forces.
At the Syrian border, a valley used as a demilitarized zone adds an additional buffer, while at one crossing with Jordan in the far south, pedestrians simply walk through a series of passport and security checks to the other side. At the Lebanon border, only the U.N. or those with special permissions can pass. Other crossings separate Israel and some West Bank towns.
Plans are in the works to open Israel’s Erez Crossing for the movement of goods. According to an Israeli Defense Force commander who oversees security in the area and asked not to be identified, Erez will open for business transfers sometime in 2016. The commander said that 3,000 people already have merchant licenses or permission to move goods and do business across the border. When it is finished, thousands of people will be able to cross every year.
Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement in May, that “at least half of what currently goes via Kerem Shalom” will be redirected to Erez. Yaalon described the change as a “necessity.”
“It is our interest that Gazans live in dignity,” he said. “Both from a humanitarian point of view and because this is a way to protect the peace, in addition to existing security deterrents.”