Fatah men oversee Gaza's links to Israel

Israel Materials 26 October 2007 23:30

( AP ) - Two Palestinian civil servants, equipped with phones, a knowledge of Hebrew and unending patience, are the only direct link these days between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza.

They work in a white trailer, plunked down last month on the sandy no man's land between the last Hamas police post in Gaza and the Erez Crossing into Israel.

Rattling off ID numbers over walkie-talkies to Israeli border inspectors, they try to help a few dozen Gazans a day get into Israel for medical care. The rumble of Israeli tanks and Gaza mortar fire provide the background noise.

The improvised arrangement illustrates the complex relations between sworn enemies - Israel and Hamas on one divide, the rival Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank on another.

The Islamic militant Hamas tolerates the border post, even though its employees are loyal to the group's political rival, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, and the trailer's very existence illustrates Hamas' growing isolation. Hamas says it doesn't want to prevent the sick from getting care.

Israel's part in the arrangement underscores the difficulty of severing ties completely, even after Israel declared Gaza "hostile territory" in September.

Human rights groups say Israel - as direct military occupier for 38 years, until 2005, and still in control of Gaza's borders and air space - must do more to prevent a humanitarian crisis among the 1.4 million residents of the territory.

Gaza's borders have been virtually sealed since June, when Hamas seized control, chasing Abbas' security forces from their posts, including at crossings with Israel and Egypt.

Gaza's residents can no longer travel or export, and Israel allows in only basic items, such as food and medicine, coordinating directly with Gaza merchants and sidestepping Hamas.

A similar system was in place at Erez, the main passenger crossing, with Gazans trying to get out contacting the Israeli border authorities. However, the do-it-yourself system proved impractical, with soldiers sometimes firing warning shots at those approaching because of misunderstandings.

These days, the few who can leave Gaza - the very sick, employees of international organizations, journalists, humanitarian hardship cases - come to the mobile home, set up near torn-up roads and bombed-out buildings in a battle-scarred expanse at the northern edge of Gaza.

Booms go off from time to time, from mortar rounds and rockets fired by Gaza militants toward Erez, but fall short. A few hundred yards away, Israeli tanks and bulldozers rumble along the large concrete wall cutting off Gaza from Israel.

On a recent morning, about a dozen people crowded around two Palestinian clerks sitting at a desk in the trailer. They handed over ID cards, waiting for the numbers to be given to the Israeli side for checking.

Then the waiting began.

Some would-be travelers took seats on plastic chairs, nervously smoking, drinking sweet tea and chatting to pass the time. Others tried to soothe their anxiety by invoking Allah's providence or swapping war stories.

"I once sat four days waiting for a permit," Mohammed Said, a 28-year-old clothing designer trying to get back to the West Bank, said after a woman complained about having spent the entire morning without knowing whether she would get through.

Conversation stopped whenever one of the Israeli inspectors came on the walkie-talkie, reading out ID numbers of those who could either approach the border terminal or were being sent home without explanation.

The Palestinian clerks tried to find the right balance between nudging their Israeli counterparts but not annoying them with too many phone calls. In impeccable Hebrew, one addressed an Israeli as "achi" - "my brother."

The Israeli morning crew was slow, and relief spread through the waiting room when a shift change was announced, with a promise from the Israeli side to speed things up.

The mood dimmed when a traveler came through the door, announcing he had just been sent back from the border terminal even though he said he had received an entry permit to Israel for medical treatment.

The man, Omar Helweh, 41, said he suffers from kidney stones and cannot have surgery in Gaza. After waiting for three hours to cross, he was told at the Israeli border terminal that he posed a security risk and was sent home. Helweh said he has been on strong pain killers for three months.

Israeli human rights groups say Israel has further tightened its criteria for patients from Gaza in recent weeks, allowing entry only to those with life-threatening conditions.

Israeli officials said they are trying to minimize the security risks posed by any Gazans coming to Israel.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the branch of the Israeli military involved in coordinating with Gaza, said only humanitarian hardship cases are allowed out. He said his office has to ask the defense minister for special permission for anyone else, including a soccer team heading to a competition outside Gaza.

Dror said Erez and other crossings often come under fire from Gaza, forcing frequent shutdowns.

Those who get the go-ahead walk for about a mile from the Palestinian trailer to the Erez terminal, a modern airport-style hall where travelers make their way through turnstiles, metal detectors and a maze of glass-encased rooms. Only the very sick can approach by ambulance, and then not after dark.

Israeli human rights activists demand that the military loosen some of the restrictions to allow more patients out, as well as some 6,400 people who have foreign passports, residency rights or student visas and are waiting to leave. A few weeks ago, some 550 people in that group were able to take army-escorted shuttle buses to Egypt, but Dror said other departures were halted because of rocket fire.

Anwar Dughmush, 41, who's had trouble getting his 15-year-old nephew to Israel for an eye operation, said Gazans were squeezed by all sides, but he was particularly angry at the Palestinian rivals. "Hamas and Fatah are responsible for anyone who dies or gets sicker," he said.