After agreeing last year to relax its blockade around the Gaza Strip, Israel moved Wednesday to tighten the security cordon by permanently closing what was once its largest commercial crossing point.
Israeli military officials cited unspecified security concerns for the closure and promised that all goods that would have passed through at the Karni crossing, southeast of Gaza City, would go through the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, the last operational commercial crossing, which is about 21 miles to the southwest at the point where Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip meet.
In recent years, Israeli authorities had restricted Karni — which, like other crossings, has been occasionally targeted by mortar rounds and other forms of militant attack from Gaza — to only two days a week to handle the flow of wheat, animal feed and gravel into Gaza. Officials said the relocation of Karni's conveyor belt to Kerem Shalom would eventually enable increased capacity at the remaining crossing.
"Because we will be able to open Kerem Shalom more days a week and it won't be under the same threat, we will be able to dramatically enlarge the operation," said Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli military spokesman.
But critics predicted that the closure would worsen congestion at the smaller Kerem Shalom terminal, increasing delivery costs and hindering economic cooperation between Gaza and the West Bank, which Palestinians hope one day to turn into a linked independent state.
"Forcing humanitarian organizations through the bottleneck of Kerem Shalom will do little to relieve the humanitarian suffering of the people of Gaza," said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.
He said current deliveries to Gaza were at only 40% of their levels before the current Israeli embargo was imposed in 2007 and that shifting to the smaller Kerem Shalom facility would make it impossible for Gaza to return to that volume even if restrictions on certain goods were lifted. He predicted that redirecting traffic to Kerem Shalom would increase the U.N.'s delivery costs by 20% because of the size and type of equipment available at the terminal.
Since the 2007 takeover of Gaza by the militant Islamic group Hamas, Israel and Egypt have imposed a tight cordon around Gaza's land borders, sea access and airspace, crippling the territory's already fragile economy. About 45% of Gaza's residents are unemployed and 80% require international aid, U.N. officials estimate.
Karni, which currently can handle up to 1,000 trucks a day, is the third crossing point Israel has closed since 2007. Kerem Shalom now handles as many as 250 trucks daily, though Israeli officials have promised to enlarge it.
Israel's Gaza blockade came under international scrutiny in May after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists, including one with U.S. citizenship, who took part in a protest flotilla seeking to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. The commandos opened fire after coming under attack from passengers with knives and clubs when they boarded the ship.
In response to criticism about excessive use of force in the maritime incident in international waters, Israel soon after began to relax its restrictions on the passage to Gaza of food, household goods and many other items, though cement and certain other construction materials remain restricted because Israel worries that such items could be used by militants to build bunkers or weapons. Israel also pledged to increase the capacity for delivery of goods and allow more exports.
"We're concerned that despite promises last summer to open additional crossings, Israel is actually closing crossings, further limiting the movement of goods into and out of Gaza," said Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli group opposed to the restrictions.
Bashi alleged that Israeli authorities wanted to eventually seal the border between Israel and Gaza to break the link with the West Bank and direct the traffic of all goods and people through Egypt. She said maintaining interaction between Gaza and the West Bank was "important for the economy and fabric of society; being cut into two is not a viable option."
In Gaza, Hamas officials condemned Karni's closure.
"Closing all the crossings with Gaza and keeping only Kerem Shalom point is meant to increase the suffering of the 1.5 million people of Gaza," said Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri
Special correspondent Ahmed Aldabba in Gaza City contributed to this report.