Israel Says Gaza Is No Longer Occupied, But It Still Exerts Much Control

Saturday, April 7th 2007, 2:19 pm
By: News On 6

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Raouf Ziara's love life is in Israel's hands.

When Ziara, a 36-year-old officer in the Palestinian security forces, crossed from Gaza to Egypt in late March to visit his Egyptian wife, he had spent more than a month repeatedly trying to get through a border station that Israel only rarely allows to open.

Now in Cairo, Ziara doesn't know when he'll be able to return. But he knows he'll be doing it alone since Israel has frozen immigration to Gaza, which is why his wife is stuck in Egypt and can't join him.

Despite its withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005, Israel still exerts considerable control over the lives of the 1.4 million Palestinians there by controlling access.

The movement of crops crucial to farmers' livelihoods, the decision on when residents of the coastal strip can leave and when they can come back, permission for a foreign-born spouse to move to Gaza _ it's all still up to Israel.

Yet Israel says it no longer occupies Gaza because it pulled out its soldiers and settlers. Under international law, Israel argues, it has no obligations to Gaza's residents but on its own initiative will try to keep supplies flowing to the crowded, poverty-stricken territory to avert a humanitarian crisis.

``We are no longer an occupying power,'' said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. ``The legal responsibilities defined by being an occupying power no longer apply.''

For Gaza's residents, a brief period of relatively free movement followed Israel's withdrawal.

But despite those gains, Palestinian militants inside Gaza continued to fire rockets at towns inside Israel, and Israel tightened the borders again. It clamped down further when militants linked to the Islamic movement Hamas tunneled into Israel in June 2006 and abducted a soldier.

Israel says it's now turning the crossings with Gaza into international border points, formalizing its farewell from the territory it captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

It has built a high-tech passenger terminal at the main crossing at Erez _ with signs declaring it a ``border control point.'' From behind bulletproof glass, inspectors issue orders over loudspeakers to travelers making their way through a maze of metal detectors, remote-controlled gates and passport control.

But the United Nations says Gaza remains occupied, arguing that Israel retains control over the crossings and that Gaza and the West Bank constitute one unit. Since the West Bank is still occupied, the U.N. says, so is the rest.

Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, accuses the international community of failing to hold Israel to its responsibilities as an occupier, such as ensuring passage of people and goods from the narrow strip where more than half the people live in poverty and unemployment is 36 percent.

``Israel's failure to uphold those obligations has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is unprecedented in 40 years of occupation,'' said Gisha director, Sari Bashi.

Despite an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by the U.S. in November 2005, movement through the crossing points is far below capacity.

Younis Abu Shabana, who grows chili peppers and tomatoes for export to Europe, said he was able to ship just 250 tons of his 4,000 tons of produce last season. He said he threw away 750 tons that had already been packed, and let the rest rot in the fields.

Israel says it restricts Palestinian movement mainly because of the rocket attacks and the kidnapping of the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. After the abduction, Israeli troops unleashed a weeks-long military offensive and bombed Gaza's power plant, severely disrupting the electricity supply.

Israel determines who can visit or settle in Gaza through its control over the population registry. Only those on the list get Israeli-issued ID cards crucial for travel in and out of the strip, including through the Gaza-Egypt border that in theory is under Palestinian control.

At Israel's insistence, the 2005 agreement stipulated that only legal Gaza residents can cross that border, along with a limited number of foreigners.

Israel has frozen immigration since the Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, meaning that foreign-born relatives or spouses such as Ziara's Egyptian wife cannot move to the territory. More than 50,000 Palestinians who came on visitors' permits in the 1990s, following interim peace agreements with Israel, don't have residency rights. If they leave, they won't be allowed back.

In February, the Palestinian Authority began issuing its own ID cards, but Israel doesn't recognize them.

In Gaza City, Issam Helmi, 36, recently waited at the Palestinian Interior Ministry to apply for the local ID for his Ukrainian-born wife, Olga. She came in 1996 as a visitor but wasn't granted residency by Israel. Having overstayed her visa, she took a risk last June by leaving to visit Ukraine. Now she can't come back.

Soon after Israel's pullout, the Palestinians were thrilled to gain control over Gaza's border with Egypt. Passage through the Rafah crossing was relatively easy then, giving Gazans a lifeline to the rest of the world for the first time in decades.

But Israel's policy changed after the Palestinians elected a government led by Hamas, which is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and remains committed to Israel's destruction. Since Shalit's capture, Israel has allowed the border to open only one-fifth of the time.

Though Israeli inspectors no longer staff the border terminal, Israel controls whether European monitors assigned to Rafah under the crossings agreement can report to work. If the monitors don't show up, the terminal remains closed.

The Israeli Defense Ministry says the crossing has been exploited for smuggling weapons and money to Gaza, and that Israel allows it to open periodically on humanitarian grounds. Regev, the Israeli spokesman, said Israel is acting in line with the crossings agreement.

However, Gisha published a transcript of an August meeting of Israeli security officials in which some participants said closing Rafah should be used as a pressure tactic to try to free Shalit.

The head of the European monitors, Italian Lt. Gen. Pietro Pistolese, has warned that frequently shutting the crossing ``only encourages more people to resort to extremism and terror.''

Israel notifies Palestinian border officials of a planned opening the night before, and the news is then broadcast on Palestinian TV and radio, usually causing a crush of thousands of people desperate to cross. The terminal can only handle 1,200 people in each direction on any day.

Ziara, the security officer, tries to visit Cairo every three months to see his wife, whom his Egyptian mother selected for him eight years ago.

During the month he spent trying to cross, Ziara left his packed suitcase at a cousin's house a mile from the terminal to try to get in line quickly. One night, he slept in a car at the border hoping to get across, but a thousand others had done the same thing.

``People were paying bribes to pass through before us and there was no order _ it was all chaos,'' Ziara said. ``So I left the car and I crossed the first gate, but the second gate _ I tried to jump over it. Many people were doing the same thing. The (Palestinian) soldiers there fired at us and we all ran away. So I didn't make it.''

Like the movement of people, the movement of goods and produce is restricted, with cargo trucks allowed into Israel only through the Karni crossing.

In an attempt to boost exports while addressing Israeli safety concerns, the U.S. has endorsed a plan for the Palestinians' elite Presidential Guard to run their side of Karni and for scanners to speed up security checks.

But the scanners and the guards' barracks still aren't in place. Congress is considering a Bush administration request for $16 million to help with the upgrades.

About 1,200 trucks leave Gaza every month, up from 400 in the fall but still far below the 400 a day envisioned by the U.S.

Mounds of scrap metal along Gaza's main road are one sign of the export squeeze and reflect the poverty of Palestinians, who collect bits and pieces for extra cash.

Trader Ibrahim Barakeh, 32, said he used to export large amounts of the metal, crushed into neat blocks, but new restrictions mean he can get only 100 tons through Karni every year. The backlog sits in large piles on a nearby lot, costing him $1,000 a year for storage.

``We depend on the Israelis,'' he said. ``They have the power in their hands.''