Gaza wilts under a bad policy

Wed., Nov. 9, 2005

On the surface, this column is about tomatoes and peppers.

But it's really a story about flawed thinking in the White House and Israel about how to curb Palestinian terror and get a peace process back on track.

The story begins in August when a group of wealthy Americans made a grand gesture to help with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. President Bush has called for Gaza to become an economic showcase after the Israeli exit, yet Gaza has 1.3 million people and a 60 percent rate of unemployment. The Americans tried to help by putting up $14 million to buy greenhouses from departing Jewish settlers and turn them over to Palestinians.

James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank who now serves as an administration envoy to the Mideast, donated $500,000 from his own pocket. He wanted to create a few thousand jobs in Gaza that might help undercut support for radical groups such as Hamas. And, indeed, around 3,000 Palestinians will harvest the first crop of peppers and tomatoes from these greenhouses in mid-November.

The good news stops here.

The tomatoes and peppers are likely to rot at the Karni border crossing between Gaza and Israel, along with the crops of many other Palestinian farmers. Why? Because the Israelis have blocked the export of goods from Gaza to Israel and beyond.

No one can dispute Israel's valid security concerns; two terrorists once sneaked through the Karni crossing in an empty container. That's why Israel says it has to keep control of Gaza's land borders, airspace and seaspace, even after the pullout.

But if Gaza is locked up like a huge prison, Bush's dreams for the territory will turn into a nightmare. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas won't have any traction to curb Hamas, which will increase recruitment and do well in January's parliamentary elections. Is anybody in Washington and Jerusalem paying attention?

Before the Gaza pullout, an average of 35 trucks daily were taking goods and produce out of Gaza. Since the pullout, the number has slowed to a trickle, averaging 12 daily. It would take 150 truckloads daily to get those tomatoes and peppers and other produce to market.

Meantime, Israeli TV has reported that the few functioning factories in Gaza are closing because they can't export, and unemployment has risen to 80 percent.

Palestinians expected better economic times after Israel's exit, says Nigel Roberts, the World Bank's country director for the West Bank and Gaza. "We needed to... create a sense of momentum," laments Roberts, "and it's something of a shock that things went in the opposite direction."

What's so infuriating about this story of tomatoes and peppers is that it has an obvious solution. Israeli leaders from both the Likud and Labor parties were discussing the need for better export procedures from Gaza in the mid-1990s. Nothing was done.

When Palestinian trucks arrive in Karni, they must off-load all their goods for checking. The goods may sit for hours, or days, before they are reloaded onto Israeli trucks for transport to Israel. For years, Israeli and U.S. officials have talked of obtaining high-tech scanners that could x-ray containers or trucks, so they could drive through without off-loading.

The United States aid agency has now budgeted $50 million to purchase scanners for Karni and some West Bank crossings. But Roberts says the scanners won't be ready for six to 18 months.

If Karni stays blocked until the arrival of the scanners, Gaza is likely to explode in the meantime. "The time for action... is short," Wolfensohn wrote last month in an open letter that betrayed his frustration. "We must of course assure security for Israel - but the best security will be hope and work for the Palestinians."

Even without the scanners, Roberts says 150 trucks could move through Karni daily. That would require the Israelis to extend operating hours, add lanes, and use existing equipment to capacity. Instead, the lack of urgency is baffling.

Gazans already suspect that Israel's withdrawal was meant to consolidate its hold on the West Bank, where Jewish settlement-building continues. A worsening economy will feed these suspicions and produce more violence.

So why on earth not let the tomatoes and peppers reach their markets? It's in everyone's interests. And time is very short.

This article also appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Friday, November 11, 2005.