Ten minutes away from Sderot, sits the Erez Crossing–the only crossing that serves as a pedestrian exit point for Gaza Strip residents entering Israel. The crossing is currently open to Palestinian workers holding permits and families seeking medical treatment in Israel. Large numbers of journalists and international foreign press also cross through the point.
I recently had an opportunity with Sderot Media Center to tour the Erez crossing last Thursday morning, February 4 on a visit coordinated with the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (IICC).
As we entered into the crossing, we could see that there was a new addition to the heavily guarded compound. A gleaming medical center stood before us, which had been opened two weeks ago at the start of the unilateral ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on January 18. Israel’s Magen David Adom in cooperation with the Department of Health opened the center to treat wounded Gazans, with the Israel investing millions of dollars into its construction.
The new Israeli medical center can handle 30 patients per hour and is staffed by paramedics and doctors who specialize in emergency medicine, pediatrics, trauma, gynecology, orthopedics, and other fields. It is equipped with state of the art laboratories, X-ray machines, and a pharmacy.
“The only problem,” tells us Shlomo Tzaban, one of the managers at the Erez Crossing, “is that the medical center is empty. No one is using it because Hamas discourages Palestinians from seeking treatment at Israeli hospitals.” Indeed, Hamas controls the crossing on the Gaza end and therefore has complete authority on Palestinians seeking to enter Israel. Subsequently, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israel–down to 80-90% –says Tzaban.
“Everyone in Gaza lives under Hamas control,” explains Tzaban. “Hamas uses terror and fear to rule the Palestinian people. There is no fair judiciary court system in Gaza today. “
Back in December 2008, the Hamas parliament sanctioned that Palestinian courts were to condemn offenders according to violent punitive measures under Islamic Sharia laws. Hamas punishments for Palestinian offenders include whipping, severing hands (for stealing), crucifixion and hanging. In addition, the bill also ensured that offenders who commit any activities that hurts Palestinian morale and Palestinian interests are liable to death, including people who negotiate with a foreign government.
Tzaban, a 28-year old veteran of the IDF, emphasizes that Hamas will use any means now to win support from the Palestinians after the heavy damages inflicted by the war. “The fact that Hamas police recently raided an UNRWA storehouse in order to distribute the humanitarian aid on its own accord may shock the international community but it’s happened before,” says Tzaban. “In order to maintain the support of the Palestinian civilian population, Hamas is trying to show that only they have the power to provide for the welfare and social needs of the Palestinian people, while at the same time waging a terror agenda against Israel.”
The United Nations Relief and Work Agency accused Hamas of seizing humanitarian aid sent into Gaza from countries across the world on February 4. UNRWA stated that Hamas had seized thousands of blankets and hundreds of food packages that were meant to be delivered to hundreds of poor families in Gaza after UNRWA refused to hand over the humanitarian aid to the Hamas Ministry of Social Welfare.
TODAY the Erez compound stands practically empty, except for a couple of Palestinian families and foreign journalists, and two peace activists standing outside. The compound was built five years ago and was meant to check through around 20,000-25,000 Palestinian workers at a time. In the meantime, hundreds of foreign journalists have used the crossing to enter into Gaza.
The director of the IICC, Reuven Ehrlich pointed out during the visit that there is a critical need for the foreign journalists to visit Sderot in order to see the devestation caused by Hamas. “Among the hundreds of international correspondents pour through the Erez crossing to visit in Gaza, how many of these journalists actually visit Sderot in order to gain a more balanced perspective? Ehrlich asked. “Sderot and the western Negev also need to be placed on the foreign press map.”
The Erez compound has been frequently attacked by Palestinian terrorists. On average, there are between one to two attempted Palestinian terrorist attacks on the Erez compound on a bi-weekly basis, according to Erez, an IDF security officer at the checkpoint. In the last four years, Palestinian terror networks have targeted the Erez crossing with almost 500 mortar rockets. In May 2008, a Palestinian bomber from Gaza blew up an explosive-laden truck on the Palestinian side of the Erez crossing, causing an estimated $3.5 million in damages to the Israeli checkpoint.
Along with the Erez crossing, the three other crossings between Gaza and Israel include Karnei, Kerem Shalom and Nahal Oz. The latter three, used to transport humanitarian aid and other goods into Gaza, have also been frequent targets of Palestinian mortar and sniper attacks. Last year, two Israelis were killed at the Nahal Oz fuel terminal in a Palestinian sniper attack. In May 2008, the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main crossing point for humanitarian goods was forced to close after terrorists trigged two jeeps full of explosives that caused extensive damage to the compound, which took five months to repair.
THE crossing points are part of the Gaza security buffer which was initiated in 1994 under Yitzchak Rabin’s Oslo Accords as a means to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel. Once Palestinian terror groups recognized that suicide bombers could no longer enter Israel, they began developing rockets and explosives. The first rocket attack on Sderot took place in 2001. When Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, rocket attacks against Sderot and the western Negev sharply increased. Today 10,000 Palestinian rockets have struck Israel, with 84 Qassams exploding in Sderot during Operation Cast Lead alone.
As we tour the silent Erez terminal, heavily fortified with concrete against explosions and suicide bombers, I can only think of Sderot located ten minutes away. With no medical center of its own, Sderot residents wounded by Qassam rockets must be transported 20 minutes away to Ashkelon to receive medical treatment.
An irony of course.
But not the only one. Despite all the monitoring equipment, special conveyor belts, and video cameras used to inspect terrorist activity at the Erez compound, Hamas rockets continue to shoot over freely, terrorizing Israelis even with a unilateral ceasefire in place.
*Photo: Humanitarian aid entering from Israel into Gaza.