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Gaza Strip residents await better access to improve economy, lives

KARNI CROSSING, Gaza Strip—It's the height of ice cream season in the blazing hot Gaza Strip, but Mahmoud Ghrab's refrigerated truckload of sweets sits slowly melting in the summer sun.

The frustrated driver pulls two spongy Elameer ice cream bars from the stacks he's trying to get to stores in the West Bank—across just 30 miles of Israeli territory—and throws up his hands. Like dozens of other Palestinians smoking cigarettes and sitting on crates of goods nearby, Ghrab can do little but kill time waiting for a green light from Israeli customs officials to ship his ice cream across the border.

"I just have to wait," he said. "Wait for their mercy."

While Israel won international praise for swiftly removing all 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and is set to hand over the land to the Palestinian government within days, what matters more to truck drivers such as Ghrab and to the local economy is what happens on the borders.

Life in the Gaza Strip won't get better, those living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet said, until Palestinians have more access to the outside world.

Easing border access is crucial not only to the Gaza Strip economy, but also to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who faces the daunting task of trying to turn the depressed area into the beginnings of a possible Palestinian state.

If Abbas falters, frustrations are likely to boil over once again and swamp the latest attempts to bring stability, if not peace, to the region.

For nearly five years, this narrow coastal strip has been like a large, sprawling prison as Israel sealed off the area to combat rising numbers of suicide bombings and attacks during the deadly Palestinian uprising. The number of Palestinian workers heading into Israel fell from 22,000 a day to zero. Truckloads of goods leaving the Israeli-occupied territory plummeted 80 percent, leaving Karni Crossing operating at about 15 percent of capacity.

And Israel still enforces a time-consuming system that requires Palestinians to unload their goods at the border and transfer them to Israeli trucks for transport 30 miles through Israel to the West Bank, where they're handed over to Palestinian drivers.

"There is no border in the world like this—this nightmare for Gaza," said Mazen Sinokrot, the Palestinian Authority's economic minister.

The clampdown at Karni has taken its toll on businesses such as the Elameer Ice Cream Co.

Before the uprising, the small factory near the Israeli border had 70 employees and dispatched five trucks every day with up to 10 tons of ice cream for customers, three-quarters of whom were in the West Bank, company President Emad El Wadeyya said.

Now, Elameer is lucky if it can send three trucks a week to the West Bank.

When it can, El Wadeyya said, nearly a fifth of the ice cream melts because of the hours-long process of navigating the border with Israel, which sometimes shuts down the process mid-transfer, leaving boxes spoiling on the belt behind closed doors. Even the bars that make it usually have melted and frozen a few times in transit, making them a lot less appetizing.

Most goods that come into and out of the Gaza Strip funnel through the Karni Crossing, a terminal built more than 10 years ago at a time when Israeli-Palestinian relations were at their best.

As relations deteriorated during the Palestinian uprising, Karni and the other Gaza Strip border crossings became targets for militants. Karni still bears the scar of an attack in January—a huge hole in the concrete wall now filled with concrete blocks—that left six Israelis dead.

"We understand that for Gaza to be a political and economic success, the Palestinians have to have movement of goods and people in and out," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "But we can't do any sort of arrangement and ignore the security scenario."

Because of the security concerns, getting goods out of the Gaza Strip can resemble astronauts entering outer space. Carefully packaged products often are placed on conveyer belts monitored by unseen Israelis who decide whether to allow the products through a sealed door into the Israeli side.

Drivers often complain that the unseen officials arbitrarily shut down gates or reverse the belts, sending goods crashing to the concrete.

Most days, less than a third of Karni's 34 lanes are open, with the majority of them moving Israeli goods into the Gaza Strip, said Salah Samhadana, who oversees Gaza's border crossings for the Palestinian Authority. Sending goods into Israel usually ends at 5 p.m., while products continue to come into the Gaza Strip until 11 at night.

On average, about 30 truckloads of goods leave the area each day, while 200 to 300 are brought in.

With the official transfer of the former Israeli settlement lands to the Palestinians expected by mid-September, both sides are trying to work out a deal to ease border constraints.

One major sticking point is the requirement that Palestinians transfer their goods to Israeli drivers for the trip through Israel and then put them back on Palestinian trucks when they get to the West Bank.

Nigel Roberts, the director of the West Bank and Gaza Strip programs for the World Bank, who's been working with both sides on the border issues, said Israel had agreed in principle to return to a system that would allow Palestinian drivers to carry their goods between the West Bank and Gaza Strip but that details still needed to be finalized.

"I think we're fairly close to having a basic understanding about how the passages will be managed into the future," Roberts said. "And I think the nature of that is going to be quite different."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-GAZA

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