On the day after the open-ended ceasefire between Hamas and Israel went into effect, I joined a Government Press Office trip to the Kerem Shalom crossing, which opened in 2008 to facilitate the movement of goods between Israel proper and the Gaza Strip.
The Defense Ministry employs a civilian crew of Jews and Arabs to handle the critical and often dangerous job of screening each truckload and transferring a huge assortment of merchandise – from school uniforms to generators – to a crew on the other side of the cement wall, employed by the Palestinian Authority. Some goods also come out of Gaza, such as strawberries, bound for markets in Europe and parts of the Middle East.
Most of the transfers, especially perishables, are made between 6 and 8 in the morning so the items can get to stores when they open. All the merchandise that arrives at Kerem Shalom on the Israeli side to be transferred to the Gazan side was bought either by a humanitarian organization or by private citizens/companies doing business there. Though Israel foots the cost of the operation of scanning and transferring the goods, it does not buy the merchandise. Produce coming out of Gaza all goes to its final destination through some kind of private business deal.
The crossing was closed briefly several times this summer when rocket fire hit the work area, yet since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge on July 8 this year, 5,779 trucks entered Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom crossing, carrying food, medicines, diesel, gasoline and medical equipment.
“In the last six years here, we didn’t lose anyone and we didn’t kill anyone,” noted Ami Shaked, the intrepid Israeli manager of the site.
That stark statement is not to be taken for granted in this part of the country. Three days before our visit, more than 20 mortars and rockets landed in or near Kerem Shalom, whose name, ironically enough, means Vineyard of Peace.
“We had to stop to protect our people,” Mr. Shaked said. “We have methods for operating a special way under fire. And remember that the Palestinian team is under fire like us. My people, if they have to sacrifice themselves to protect the Palestinian people here, they will.”
During Operation Protective Edge, only humanitarian aid was allowed through. Even so, that added up to more than 6,000 truckloads of merchandise such as fuel and cooking gas, or almost 120,000 tons of goods.
“I will not put my people at risk to supply chocolate that my son didn’t have at home,” said Mr. Shaked, standing near a pallet full of chocolate wafers from Europe. “I will put my people at risk to supply the Gazans with food and medical supplies.”
On August 25, for example, 274 trucks were scheduled to cross into Gaza. Due to Hamas rockets, only 203 trucks arrived at Kerem Shalom. Among them were 111 trucks carrying 2,190 tons of food and three trucks carrying eight tons of humanitarian supplies. Each truck must be thoroughly checked for contraband and weapons.
Small bomb shelters are scattered all around for the protection of the workers. I noticed that one of them had a sign proclaiming (in translation) “Kosher for Passover. Please do not bring in leavened food.” Obviously, the shelters are needed year-round, not just during Operation Protective Edge and not just during Passover.
On the day of our visit, the routine was getting back to normal, or what passes for normal in the truly abnormal reality here. About 600 trucks were expected to bring not only items such as water tanks, furniture, clothing, sanitary supplies, and housewares, but also ceramic and glass for repairing damaged homes.
Several fellow reporters were surprised to hear Mr. Shaked explain that shipments of cement stopped going through in October 2013 for the free market, but never were prohibited for humanitarian aid until the latest conflict launched by Hamas. How much of that cement made its way to the construction of the “terror tunnels” that Israeli ground troops risked life and limb to destroy in the 50-day war? That’s not a question Mr. Shaked can answer.
He did say, however, that although the two crews work together Sundays through Thursdays, nobody fully trusts one another on either side of the gray concrete wall. Still, his Arab and Jewish workers get along and watch out for one another.
“Even if there is no trust, they come and work for me every day. We share the same problems. Everyone is my responsibility and I don’t check their ID,” he said.
As for the Gazan crews, “I don’t expect compliments from the other side. They know whatever they need that my government allows them to get, they will get.”
Mr. Shaked, a lean and suntanned man sporting a salt-and-pepper ponytail under his hat, was anticipating that in several days the crews would be processing supplies sent by international organizations to begin rebuilding Gaza.
It is hard to imagine another country putting its own citizens in the line of fire to transfer aid to an area that has been mercilessly attacking that country for years, especially when it’s only a matter of time until the next salvo aimed at Israeli civilians is fired. It is hard to imagine another country using taxpayer money to assure that the citizens of a hostile entity get everything they need.
But, as I have come to appreciate so fully, we’re not just another country. We’re Israel.
Abigail Klein Kleichman, our Israel correspondent, lived in Teaneck for many years. She frequent files a “Letter from Israel.”