GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel’s Reshet Bet radio station announced April 29 that Israel has laid out a plan — the first of its kind — to establish a railway from Israel to the Gaza Strip through the Erez border crossing to facilitate the entry of goods to Gaza and the movement of people into and out of the Strip.
In an article in Yedioth Ahronoth, writer Matan Tzuri quoted Kamil Abu Rukun, the head of the Land Crossings Authority at the Israeli Defense Ministry, as saying that the plan will expand the Erez crossing and that the station would be built in agricultural fields near the Erez settlement.
During his meeting with the heads of settlement blocs in the Gaza envelope, Abu Rukun said that the main driver behind the plan was the widening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and its increasing impact on vital sectors, as well as the potential impact of such crises on Israel's security.
In its report, Tzuri also cited Alon Shuster, the head of the Sha'ar Hanegev settlement bloc, as saying that the plan will have international political and financial support.
The Erez crossing is dedicated to Palestinian merchants, foreign delegations and missions, and Palestinian medical patients. To cross it requires permits from the Israeli authorities in coordination with the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) General Authority of Civil Affairs.
Mohammed al-Maqadmeh, the director of information at the PA's General Authority of Civil Affairs, which monitors the implementation of agreements with Israel, told Al-Monitor that the Erez crossing is dedicated to businessmen and merchants who have common interests with the Israelis.
Who will construct the railway, where the workforce would come from and how long the project would take are all still to be revealed. Israel has said only that the project will be implemented soon, according to Yedioth Ahronoth.
Asked about Israel's railway plan, Maqadmeh said that any step taken to facilitate the passage of people and the transport of goods will “certainly be in our own interest.” However, he said, this project has a political dimension and isn't merely a procedural step. “We do not trust unilateral steps because they serve the Israeli agenda and Israeli interests,” he added, noting that there is no set protocol governing the crossing at present and that they have not yet been informed of any specific plans.
Maher Tabbaa, the director of public relations and media at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called Israel's announcement of a plan to establish a railway to Gaza “a media stunt.”
Tabbaa told Al-Monitor, “We have heard many Israeli statements regarding the Gaza Strip, including Israel’s announcement last year of its intention to receive Palestinian workers from Gaza to work in Israel and restore the labor activities between Gaza and Israel. But this has yet to occur.” He expects the announcement of the railway plan is part of an Israeli attempt to look humane before international institutions and Western society and lead the world to think that it is taking steps to ease the siege on the Gaza Strip.
Tabbaa stressed that Palestinian traders and businessmen are very rarely granted such travel permits. According to the General Authority of Civil Affairs, 1,830 Palestinians traveled through the Erez crossing during the first week of May. The authority counted 152 foreigners who left the Gaza Strip through the crossing, while 129 foreigners arrived, and the Israeli authorities approved a single permit for a trader from Gaza.
Maamoun Abu Amer, a media commentator on Israeli affairs, believes that the plan to build a railway with Gaza is part of Israeli efforts to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.
He said the move is a sign that the Israelis have laid out a plan to increase Gaza's dependency on Israel. Abu Amer said, “This step will likely be followed by an agreement to bring in Palestinian workers from the Gaza Strip to work inside Israel.”
It is noteworthy that Israel does not forbid, in principle, the entry of Palestinian workers from Gaza to work in the agricultural fields of the Gaza envelope as long as calm prevails with the Gaza Strip. But the Israeli security apparatus objects to such entries for security reasons.
Abu Amer said that Israel is interested in preserving calm in Gaza, citing as evidence that it rejected a formal request from the PA to stop deducting the cost of electricity consumption in Gaza, worth $11 million, from the Palestinian taxes.
He said that Israel is currently working to preserve calm in Gaza and added that the state comptroller's report issued Feb. 28 on the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014 had criticized the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not trying to prevent it. Abu Amer added that the report has left the Israeli government leery of being blamed for a new conflict and eager to maintain stability and economic cooperation with the Gaza Strip.
For nearly 10 years, Israel has kept all of the commercial crossings with Gaza virtually closed, leaving only the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south open for the entry of commercial goods. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian patients are forced to go to hospitals in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Israel via Erez.
Several international and UN institutions, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, have warned of a humanitarian and health disaster looming in Gaza due to the continued closure of the crossings and the ongoing Israeli blockade.