Enemies and economics: Doing business at the Israel-Gaza border


In his disquisition on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Dec. 28, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the “dire” humanitarian situation in Gaza. On this point, he was accurate, noting that “Gaza is home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of people enduring extreme hardships with few opportunities.” 

Kerry added that “1.3 million people out of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million are in need of daily assistance. … Most have electricity less than half the time and only 5 percent of the water is safe to drink.”

He rightly blamed Hamas, which, instead of building economic infrastructure and taking care of its people, “continue to re-arm and divert reconstruction materials to build tunnels, threatening more attacks on Israeli civilians that no government can tolerate.” 

What Kerry failed to mention — though he made a passing reference to the “closing of crossings” that have choked off supplies from Gaza — is that for the past decade, Israel has consistently and judiciously provided for Gaza’s needs, through an import-export nexus at their border, known as Kerem Shalom.

Since 2006, when Israel imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Gaza — a response to Hamas launching rockets into southern Israel — Kerem Shalom, nestled on the border between Israel, Gaza and Egypt, became a lifeline for the 1.8 million living in the strip. Much of the time, Israel is solely responsible for the flow of goods going in and out of Gaza. This is not either country’s wish, of course; but Israel took measures to protect itself, and ever since, has had to face the unique predicament of providing for her enemy.

Over the past decade, Israel and Egypt tried sharing responsibility for this effort, but Egypt has proven a temperamental partner and often closes its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, shutting down trade completely. 

When this happens, Israel finds itself — sometimes for months— totally responsible for Gaza’s civilian needs. 

Imagine bearing sole responsibility for stimulating your enemy’s economy — for providing its civilians with water, gas, electricity, medical supplies, building materials, even butter. Imagine also, the task of operating an import-export point in which you cannot trust your trade partner, your trade partner does not trust you, and you must ensure that the tons of goods that pass through on nearly a thousand trucks each day do not contain materials that can kill you.

Welcome to Kerem Shalom, ground zero of this operation.

“We don’t want any photographs of dogs, scanners or soldiers with weapons,” the Israeli official managing Kerem Shalom on behalf of the Israeli Ministry of Defense warned me when I visited there last month at the invitation of the government.

“This is a special mission to support an enemy people,” he declared, and for security reasons could not divulge his name. “Most [Gazans] are innocent, but Gaza is occupied by Hamas terrorists.”

He pointed to a collection of mortar shells and rocket parts that sit on a table at the back of his office — strewn about like collectibles. “We’ve been hit by Gaza; we’ve been attacked by Gaza; and we have to serve Gaza,” he said.

Each day, 200 people work at Kerem Shalom, including 75 Palestinians from Gaza, paid by the Palestinian Authority. “There’s no trust between sides, but we have to work together,” the official said.

In this tense operation, workers on either side unload each truck and the driver is sent away. Goods are loaded onto a second, on-site truck, and put through a series of security inspections — massive scanners capable of scanning 100 tons of goods in seven minutes, then Malinois wolf-dogs and, finally, human beings. After goods pass inspection, they are loaded onto a third truck belonging to whichever side is their destination. “Everything here is risk management,” the official said. “Nothing that can hurt Israel can come through here.”

Part of that risk management — for Israelis — includes deciding how many “dual-use” materials they should allow into Gaza. Seemingly innocent items such as cement, for example, can be used for building housing or building tunnels. 

Last August, Israeli authorities intercepted a shipment of commando knives hidden among tools. Other checkpoints in Israel have intercepted electrodes (hidden in butter), ammonium chloride (disguised in table salt) and wet suits (believed to be for a seaborne attack) — all on their way
to Gaza. 

Nevertheless, business at the border is booming: In 2012, 69,000 trucks delivered goods through the crossing; in 2016, that number rose to 190,000, according to statistics from the Ministry of Defense. 

Kerem Shalom hardly makes Gaza perfect. Residents have electricity for only eight hours per day (though those infamous Hamas tunnels were powered 24/7). There’s also high unemployment, inflation and a black market that makes regular goods unaffordable for most people.  

Kerem Shalom is a bittersweet compromise for both parties, wherein the risks are high and the benefits, measured. In a better world, it wouldn’t have to exist at all, and the blockade would end. 

It would have been nice if Kerry had acknowledged Israel’s delicate balancing act between security and civility. Israel’s policies toward Gaza may not be charitable, but they are compassionate; something the world never sees when foreign journalists only swoop in to cover conflict. The situation is not ideal, but it is humane.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.