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Movement across the Israel Hamas divide

Screengrab from AP video of trucks unloading gravel brought in from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip Monday, Dec. 31, 2012. (AP Photos/APTN)

Palestinian Justice Ministry denies ceasefire talks: Justice ministry: Delegation in Cairo not to discuss calm with occupation
In this posting: Ma’an reports ceasefire talks (1) ; news reports from Huffington Post (2)  and NY Times (3) on the lifting of restrictions on importing building materials.

Hamas delegation visits Cairo to discuss Gaza truce

By Ma’an news
December 30, 2012

GAZA CITY — A legal delegation from Gaza’s ministry of justice visited Cairo on Saturday to discuss the Egyptian-mediated truce agreement between Hamas and Israel last month, as well as other bilateral issues, Palestinian sources told Ma’an.

The delegation included 13 judges and counselors who took part in talks with Egyptian officials to discuss the terms of a truce agreement which ended eight days of violence between Gaza and Israel in November.

Officials will discuss lifting the naval and land blockade of Gaza, and easing restrictions on Palestinians entering and exiting the territory.

Israel wants Egypt to pressure Hamas and other factions to stop smuggling arms into Gaza, the sources said.

The Egyptian-mediated ceasefire agreement stipulated that both sides should stop all hostilities. It also contained provisions for discussing the opening of Gaza’s crossings and facilitating the movement of people and goods.

Israel Eases Gaza Restrictions

By Aron Heller and Ibrahim Barzak, Huffington Post
December 31, 2012

JERUSALEM — In a major concession to Gaza’s Hamas leaders Monday, Israel dropped its five-year ban on construction materials crossing into the territory and raised hopes there that rebuilding could begin following a damaging eight-day Israeli air campaign.

The easing of restrictions is an outgrowth of the cease-fire that ended the airstrikes and months of daily rocket fire from Gaza at Israel. Contacts mediated by Egypt to follow up the truce produced the concession, and Israel promised to keep easing the lives of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, as long as Israelis were no longer targeted by rocket fire by Gaza militants.

How long the new arrangement holds could serve as a test case for the brittle truce between the bitter enemies. It also reflects a new power equation, with neighboring Egypt under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent group of Hamas.

Israel, together with Egypt, imposed a land and naval embargo on Gaza after Hamas violently overtook the territory in 2007. Although Israel eased the restrictions in 2010, building materials such as cement, gravel and metal rods were still largely banned because Israel claimed militants could use them to make fortifications and weapons.

Hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border gave Gaza a conduit for all manner of goods as well as weapons, though the blockade remained intact.

During eight days of violence in November, the Israeli military said 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel, including the first from Gaza to strike the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. The rocket attacks killed six Israelis and wounded dozens. Israeli airstrikes killed 169 Palestinians, many of them militants, and caused considerable damage. Israel said it targeted Hamas installations and government buildings.

As part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist leaders, Israel agreed to consider new border arrangements in return for a complete cessation of rocket fire.

“Now we’re talking about a permanent easing,” said Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman. “The longer the calm persists, the more we’ll weigh additional easing of restrictions that will benefit the private sector.”
Hamas downplayed the move, calling it inadequate. Gaza economists said it would take years of shipments to make a dent in the gap left by the five years of blockade.

Inbar said 20 truckloads a day could enter Gaza, and other concessions may follow “depending on the continuation of the calm.”

Last week, Israel authorized the entry of 60 trucks and buses for the first time since the Hamas takeover.
Gaza crossing official Raed Fattouh confirmed that Israeli agreed to send in 20 trucks of gravel daily, five days a week.

“The Israelis promised to undertake further measures to alleviate the difficult economic situation in Gaza as a result of the calm,” he said. “This move had been expected as part of the deal.”

Gaza’s leaders demand much more. Hamas wants Israel to lift the remainder of the blockade and the lifting of a near-total ban on exports from the impoverished territory. Exports, especially to the West Bank, the Palestinian territory on the opposite side of Israel, once formed the backbone of Gaza’s economy. The West Bank is run by the more moderate Fatah, ousted from Gaza by Hamas.

Critics contend the export ban punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas, contributing heavily to an unemployment rate of about one-third of the workforce. Eighty percent of Gaza’s 1.6 million people rely on U.N. support.

Egypt eased its own restrictions on Saturday, allowing in 1,400 tons of gravel paid for by Qatar. The oil-rich emirate pledged $425 million to build housing, schools, a hospital and roads in Gaza as part of its attempt to build its influence in Palestinian politics and its power in the region, at the expense of regional rival Iran, Hamas’ longtime patron.

Shipments from Egypt are expected to be ramped up to 4,000 tons daily, said Yassir al Shanti, Gaza’s deputy minister of housing and public works. He estimated Gaza needs up to 3 million tons of gravel to build roads, and the Qatar-funded projects need more than 1 million tons.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had poor relations with Hamas. Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and has vowed not to abandon the Palestinians. But he is moving cautiously, in part to avoid alienating Cairo’s biggest patron, the United States.

Israel labels Hamas a terror group because of dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis, and Hamas does not recognize the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East, so Egypt is mediating the new border arrangements between the two enemies.

A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose confidential contacts to reporters, said a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo Sunday night to meet with Egyptian security officials for a second round of talks on border arrangements.

Palestinian economist Mouin Rajab said the new shipments would go only a small way to meet the needs Gaza has accumulated throughout five and a half years of blockade, during which time Hamas and Israel warred twice.
“Gaza needs more than what Israel has allowed and what Egypt has promised to allow,” he said. “We are talking about six years of blockade, no real economy and no projects in addition to what Gaza lost during two wars in 2009 and 2012.”

Reconstruction since the 2009 fighting has been slow, in part because of the blockade.

In the West Bank Monday, Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas said he would agree to resume negotiations with Israel under the auspices of an international peace conference. Abbas has previously resisted Israel’s call for direct talks, saying Israel must first stop all its West Bank settlement construction.

In a televised speech marking the anniversary of his Fatah movement, Abbas said he supports “the calls for an international peace conference under which the Palestinians would negotiate directly with Israelis within a time frame.”

Israel had no comment. In the past, Israel has called for resumption of peace talks with no preconditions.

Israel, in Shift, Lets Building Materials Cross Into Gaza

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters/NY Times
December 31, 2012

JERUSALEM — For the first time in five years, Israel on Sunday allowed 20 truckloads of building materials into Gaza for use by the private sector, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. One of the first tangible concessions under a cease-fire deal reached after eight days of intensive fighting in November, it signaled a shift in Israel’s approach to the Palestinian enclave.

The shipment on Sunday came in addition to 34 trucks of gravel that crossed into Gaza over the weekend from Egypt, which also had Israel’s approval. The materials from Egypt were earmarked for housing complexes and other construction projects that the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged to pay for when he visited Gaza in October.

The easing of restrictions on imports is a result of continuing talks in Cairo meant to anchor the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza. Israel is holding the discussions with Egypt and has no direct contact with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Israel has strictly controlled the entry of building materials. Israeli officials have argued that such materials could otherwise be used by militants for manufacturing weapons or constructing tunnels and bunkers.

In return for loosening the movement of goods, Israeli officials say, Egypt is expected to help prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli authority responsible for the crossings, said that Israel had approved the transfer of materials to the private sector “against the background of the talks with the Egyptians and the quiet that has prevailed” in the past five weeks along the Israel-Gaza border.

Soon after the cease-fire was announced, the fishing zone off the Gaza coast was extended for Palestinian fishermen from three nautical miles to six nautical miles, and Palestinian residents of Gaza were given more access to lands in a buffer zone imposed by Israel along the border.

Taher al-Nounou, a spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said Sunday that the construction materials coming from Egypt would increase to 100 trucks a day and that as part of the cease-fire agreement with Israel, more goods, including cars, would enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing.

“Israel is aware now that it will lose a lot financially if it doesn’t sell its goods to the consumers in Gaza,” Mr. Nounou added.

The last round of hostilities began in mid-November when Israel began an assault on the enclave after militants there stepped up rocket attacks against southern Israel. During eight days of fighting, Israel bombed more than 1,000 targets in Gaza and the militants fired more than 1,500 rockets into Israel, leaving more than 160 Palestinians and 6 Israelis dead.

With the cease-fire, the parties agreed to begin dealing with broader issues like easing restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. The sides have revealed little detail about the progress of talks in Cairo. Israel has played down the shift in its blockade policy, presumably not wanting to feed the Hamas assertions of victory over Israel in the latest conflict, particularly ahead of Israeli elections on Jan. 22.

But Israeli officials have explained the willingness to ease restrictions in terms of trying to ensure the longevity of the cease-fire. They say that the discussions over the deal have also provided Israel with a welcome channel of communication with the new Egyptian leadership under President Mohamed Morsi, seen here as important for the preservation of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

The election of Mr. Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, brought Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, closer to Cairo. The ousted president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was hostile to the Islamists and helped Israel impose a tight blockade on Gaza after Hamas took over there in 2007. But Egypt under Mr. Morsi’s leadership has also remained cautious, and expectations in Gaza that the border with Egypt would be thrown open have not yet been realized.

Israel began to ease restrictions on many imports into Gaza in 2010, under international pressure after a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish boat that was trying to breach the naval blockade. Most everyday products were allowed in. But Israel continued to ban cement, steel and other building materials for the private sector and some other products that Israel deemed a security risk. Gaza contractors came to rely on getting construction materials that were smuggled in from Egypt through a vast network of tunnels running under the border.

For that reason, some in Gaza were not particularly impressed by news of building materials arriving from Israel. Majdi Qawalishi, who owns a brick factory in Gaza City, said that the gravel that came through the tunnels from Egypt was significantly cheaper than gravel from Israel, saving him about $300 per day.

“I am not really bothered about the Israeli building materials,” he said, “as long as those from Egypt are widely available.”

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Gaza.

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