Al-Sijill 2009-02-05 19:00:47The Karni crossing is Gaza’s main artery for trade, with the capacity to process more than a thousand truck crossings a day. Following the outbreak of the second Intifada, however, Israel imposed a tight inspection regime on its side of the Karni terminal that reduced throughput to a trickle. As part of a 2005 US-brokered initiative to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel agreed to ease its control over Palestinian roads and border crossings in exchange for American-funded improvements of Palestinian inspection systems and security forces. Between the signing of the accord and Hamas’ seizure of Gaza in November 2007, hard-liners in Israel and their allies in Washington managed to thwart the deal. How they did it, to be recounted here in a two-part series, offers a glimpse of the obstacles President Barack Obama might face should he seriously negotiate on behalf of a Palestinian state with a viable economy as its foundation. Ephraim Sneh, a leader of Israel’s pro-peace movement and a former aid to Yitzhak Rabin, is used to the political wilderness. Not long after Rabin’s killing in 1996, he pushed Israel and the US government to buttress the Oslo process by investing in the Palestinian economy. He presented then-US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and other senior US policymakers with a list of seven projects that would give ordinary Palestinians a stake in a peaceful future. They included a new airport at the Kallandia refugee camp, sea ports at Gaza, desalination plans – and a modern cargo terminal at Karni. “If you change the economic reality you can change the political reality,” Sneh told the Americans. “By improving the Palestinian economy, you can fight terrorism.” No one listened to him. Nearly a decade later, with Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank and the incarceration of Gaza bleeding the Palestinian economy white, Sneh was vindicated. The former commando and brigadier general was given responsibility for Israel’s commitments under the Access and Mobility Agreement, which was signed in November 2005 in response to heavy pressure from then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the heart of the agreement was a vision Sneh, a fluent Arabic speaker and a former occupation governor of the West Bank, had nurtured for many years: the development of Karni and other Palestinian border crossings into efficient and secure entrepôts for trade. The agreement set ambitious goals for itself, particularly as it related to Karni. The Palestinians on their side would be given tens of millions of dollars to train border guards, build new roads, and install security and payroll systems, while the Israelis would be provided with $12 million worth of state-of-the-art scanning and surveillance equipment. By late January 2006, according to the agreement, truck crossings would reach 1,200 a day, a third of which would be carrying goods made by Palestinians for sale abroad, a crucial source of foreign exchange for the impoverished Gaza strip. The project was quickly snagged, however, on a dispute between Israel and the US Agency for International Development over the scanning equipment. Due to the tight deadlines imposed by the agreement – the scanners needed to be in place by December 31, 2005 – it was decided USAID would first lease the surveillance systems and purchase new ones later on. The leases were signed on December 8 and a few weeks later the scanners were flown from Europe to Tel Aviv on a Russian Antonov 225, the world’s largest cargo jet, at a cost of $500,000. Such an elaborate charter was necessary, according to a December 2006 USAID report, given the size of the equipment and the urgency of the situation. Once the scanners were delivered, a herd of Israeli bureaucracies – from the Ministry of Defense to the Israeli Airport Authority – submitted to USAID a list of demands for adjustments and alterations that would cost the US government an estimated $6 million to address. The list, according to an official with Chemonics, USAID’s contracting agent on the project, ranged from the substantive – for example, Israel wanted the capacity to scan three trucks at once, which required extensive retrofits and new software – to the trivial, such as a request that the nickel doorknobs in the scanners’ control rooms be replaced with brass ones. It took six months to address Israel’s conditions even after they had been narrowed down by USAID. A careful reading of the USAID report suggests Israel was trying to sabotage the mobility agreement by delaying integration of the scanners. “The majority of retrofitting tasks required extensive technical modification and in several instances, delayed or interrupted equipment deployment and operations at several sites,” the report states. “These initiatives, while justifiable in the context of [the defense ministry’s] concerns, have been perceived by the suppliers as excessive and redundant for leased equipment.” In January 2006, USAID began negotiating for the purchase of the replacement scanners. Five companies expressed an interest in the project, but nearly all of them complained of a battery of new restrictions imposed by Israel. The Israeli side, they said, was demanding technology that would have to be developed from scratch even as it desired a system already in production and with a performance record of two years. It also insisted on having a majority of seats on a committee to evaluate the scanners as opposed to the customary single-seat, third-party representation, and it wanted the evaluation process to take 90 days instead of the usual three weeks. These and other conditions would have delayed deployment of the new scanners by at least two months, according to USAID. When the frustrated bidding companies threatened to walk out of the negotiations, USAID unilaterally signed a contract with AS&E, a US-Chinese joint venture. Outraged, a senior Israeli defense official filed a formal protest to the US embassy complaining that USAID’s pre-emptive action jeopardized Israeli security. USAID was then instructed to write a letter to the defense ministry reaffirming the centrality of its security concerns, but the contract was honored. The dispute over the scanners had been resolved, though Israel’s demands for retrofits would delay their full deployment for several months. As a result, cargo traffic at Karni would be kept to a paltry few hundred truck crossings a day. But after Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections in January 2006, it no longer mattered. Well before the first vote was cast, Israel’s allies in Washington were mobilizing for the internment of Palestine.