GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s merchants fear passing through Erez, the only Israeli crossing open to people. Many have been arrested while using the Erez crossing over the last two months, on charges of smuggling materials on the prohibited list — such as chemicals and steel for construction — that Israel implemented at the beginning of its blockade in 2006 on the Gaza Strip. The siege intensified with the destruction of the tunnels on the Egyptian border in 2013, and the renewed closing of the Rafah crossing.
Since the beginning of 2015, Israeli authorities have arrested 11 Palestinian merchants traveling through the Erez crossing, charging them with the formation of a ring that “smuggles prohibited raw materials” to resistance factions inside Gaza, to restore their capabilities lost after the war last summer, i.e., rebuild the tunnels. Three Israeli merchants were also arrested at the end of February on charges of cooperating with Palestinian merchants in smuggling materials to the resistance, which many Palestinian merchants denied.
Al-Monitor spoke with Hamed Haboush, the owner of the Haboush factory for cleaning materials in Gaza, who was one of the first merchants arrested, and subsequently released after spending 17 days in prison.
"My factory is well known to Israeli companies, with which we have dealt for years. I enter Israel roughly six times per month through the Erez crossing, without any problems. But I was surprised when Israeli soldiers detained me Feb. 3 for hours for questioning, before I was taken to Majdal prison, where I remained for 17 days on charges of importing prohibited goods," Hamed said.
The Haboush factory was directly targeted and bombed during Israel’s offensive last summer, causing damages estimated at $3 million. Hamed was then forced to buy most pre-produced cleaning materials from Israel, while, prior to the war, he only bought raw materials used to produce those materials.
Hamed said, “I was mainly questioned about my relationship with the resistance and about two faxes that were allegedly sent by my company to Israeli companies, asking them to supply prohibited materials that can be used to manufacture weapons. Keep in mind that everything imported by me is approved by Israeli security agencies and environmental authorities.”
After 17 days in prison, Hamed was informed that he would be released only half an hour prior to his court date in Israel. “I don't know what happened. The fax did not originate from my company because I'm very familiar with the list of prohibited materials, which I never import or ask about while I'm in Israel,” he said.
He added, “According to what the Israeli investigator told me, the fax was sent by Haboush Company, which is not my company. I think that the confusion was caused by a similarity in names with another Gazan company.”
After conducting some research, Al-Monitor communicated with a medical supplies company called Chempal, which is owned by Ghassan Haboush, Hamed’s cousin. The company is known among merchants by the name of Chempal Haboush. Ghassan told Al-Monitor he did “not send any fax to Israeli companies [or] contact, by email, a single Israeli company after the war.” He claimed that he “seldom uses the fax.”
Ghassan said his “company dealt with chemicals before switching to medical supplies years ago.”
“It has been years since I imported chemicals from Israel. I have relations with one company there, from where, after the war, I imported sterilization alcohol for hospital use, which is not prohibited,” he said.
But Hamed opined that “the Israeli officer told him about a second fax that originated from the company requesting prohibited materials.”
“I don't know whether the investigator’s claims were true or not. All of this may have been a warning for Gaza merchants not to deal with Hamas. Smuggling is very difficult, verging on the impossible through Israeli crossings,” he said.
When Al-Monitor asked about verification concerning the faxes sent by his company, Hamed said, “I notified the internal security and the police in Gaza, but have yet to receive a reply. What helped my case regarding the faxes that Israel claimed originated from my company was the fact that the Israeli companies with which I do business stood by my side in the investigation. They affirmed that I don't import prohibited materials from them, for even Israeli citizens need a special permit to buy such materials, which is very difficult to get.”
Hamed insisted on continuing to travel to Israel, and said, “I will pass through Erez once again. I cannot stop working, and have committed no crime. I received no compensation after my factory was bombed, and was able to recover only one single piece of equipment from the rubble. Work must continue.”
On the other hand, Ghassan said, “I have no reason to travel to Israel because most of my dealings with Israeli merchants take place via email.”
He added, “Such accusations and indiscriminate arrests cause fear among merchants and make them wary of traveling through the Erez crossing.”
According to suspicions published by Israel’s internal intelligence agency Shin Bet, a number of Palestinian and Israeli merchants cooperated by smuggling steel and electrical equipment that Hamas could use to repair its network of tunnels, and in preparation for a potential future confrontation.
For his part, Hamas leader Ismail Radwan told Al-Monitor, “The Zionist media’s contention about Hamas’ relationship with a smuggling ring are mere fabrications. These lies are meant to justify the ongoing blockade and incite against the resistance with the aim of launching a new offensive.”
Concerning media reports about Hamas repairing its network of tunnels after the war, Radwan said, “The resistance has the right to prepare itself to confront any [future] aggression. This is a legitimate right and the resistance knows extremely well how to restore its capabilities.”
A government source who requested anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Israel continues to arrest some merchants suspected of smuggling through the only Israeli crossing dedicated to the passage of goods, namely the Kerem Shalom crossing.”
The source added, “The injustice and the blockade imposed on Gaza have driven Gazans to look for ways to import a variety of materials that Israel included on the list of prohibited items when the blockade began.”
With the increasing control of the entry of materials, especially construction materials, into Gaza since 2006, it seems that an invisible conflict is raging between Israel and Hamas concerning the restoration of the latter’s capabilities, which might soon result in renewed confrontations.