One of the most frequently reported items in the Arab-Israeli conflict today is the state of the crossings between Gaza and Israel.
Ten minutes away from Sderot sits the Erez Crossing - the only crossing that serves as a pedestrian exit point for
Hamas discourages Palestinians from seeking treatment at Israeli hospitals.
Gaza Strip residents entering Israel. The crossing is open to Palestinian workers holding permits and families seeking medical treatment in Israel. Large numbers of journalists and international press also pass through the point.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Erez Crossing, where the first sight that greeted me was a brand new gleaming medical center that had been opened at the start of the unilateral ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in mid-January. Israel's Magen David Adom, in cooperation with the Israeli Department of Health, opened the center to treat wounded Gazans, with the Israeli government investing millions of dollars in its construction.
The new Israeli medical center can handle 30 patients per hour, and it is staffed by paramedics and doctors who specialize in emergency medicine, pediatrics, trauma, gynecology, orthopedics and other fields. It is equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories, X-ray machines and a pharmacy.
"The only problem," tells us Shlomo Tzaban, a manager at the Erez Crossing, "is that the medical center stands empty. No one is using it because Hamas discourages Palestinians from seeking treatment at Israeli hospitals."
Before entering Erez, Palestinians must first pass through a checkpoint on the Gaza side. Hamas controls that point on the Gaza end and therefore has complete authority on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel. Subsequently, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israel - down 80-90% - says Tzaban.
"Everyone in Gaza lives under Hamas control," explains Tzaban. "Hamas uses terror and fear to rule the Palestinian people.”
Tzaban uses the judicial system in Gaza as an example.
Back in December 2008, the Hamas parliament sanctioned that Palestinian courts were to condemn offenders according to violent punitive measures under Islamic Shari'a laws. Hamas punishments for Palestinian offenders include whipping, severing of hands (for stealing), crucifixion and hanging.
Tzaban, a 28-year-old veteran of the IDF, emphasizes that Hamas will use any means now to win support from the Palestinians after the heavy damages inflicted by the war.
"The fact that Hamas police recently raided an UNRWA storehouse in order to distribute the humanitarian aid on its own accord may shock the international community, but it's happened before," says Tzaban. "In order to maintain the support of the Palestinian civilian population, Hamas is trying to show that only their regime has the power to provide for the welfare of the Palestinian people, while simultaneously waging war against Israel.”
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency accused Hamas of seizing humanitarian aid sent into Gaza from countries across the world on February 4. UNRWA stated that Hamas had seized thousands of blankets and hundreds of food packages that were meant to be delivered to hundreds of poor families in Gaza, after UNRWA refused to hand the humanitarian aid over to the Hamas Ministry of Social Welfare.
Today, the Erez compound stands practically empty, except for a couple of Palestinian families and foreign journalists, and two peace activists standing outside. The compound was built five years ago and was meant to check through around 20,000-25,000 Palestinian workers at a time. In the meantime, hundreds of foreign journalists have used the crossing to enter into Gaza, especially during the recent war.
Although the opening of the crossings is essential to the Gazan economy, Palestinian terror networks have frequently attacked the Erez Crossing. "On average, there are between two to four attempted Palestinian terrorist attacks on the Erez compound each month," according to an IDF security officer at the checkpoint.
In the last four years, Palestinian terror networks have targeted the Erez Crossing with almost 500 mortar shells. In May 2008, a Palestinian bomber from Gaza blew up an explosives-laden truck on the Palestinian side of the Erez Crossing, causing an estimated $3.5 million in damages to the Israeli checkpoint.
Along with the Erez Crossing, the three other crossings between Gaza and Israel include Karni, Kerem Shalom
Palestinian terror networks have frequently attacked the Erez Crossing.
and Nahal Oz. Initially, the crossing points were part of the Gaza security buffer facilitated under Yitzchak Rabin's 1994 Oslo Accords. A wave of Palestinian suicide bombers had flooded into Israel and the security buffer was built as a means to prevent the entrance of such terrorists, which it was successfully able to do.
Once Palestinian terror groups recognized that suicide bombers could no longer enter Israel from Gaza, they began developing rockets and explosives. These they used to intensely target Israeli communities bordering Gaza and the closest Israeli city to Gaza, Sderot, as well as the crossings themselves.
At this point, most of the crossings are considered closed, although the transfer of humanitarian aid into the Strip continues through the Karni, Kerem Shalom, and Nahal Oz crossings. Israel plans to fully open the crossings only when Hamas releases Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier kidnapped at the Kerem Shalom border crossing almost three years ago.