Strengthening Hamas in Gaza

The midday sun is blazing out of a cloudless sky at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Things will surely go quickly now. The last trucks to drive up to the security area -- which is surrounded by 8-meter (26-foot) concrete walls -- have pallets loaded with milk and meat. But before the Palestinian trucks are allowed to load the merchandise on the other side, the gates have to close on the Israeli side.

The border crossing takes its name from the nearby kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, which means "vineyard of peace." But there's no contact between Israelis and Palestinians here -- and nothing resembling peace. In 2008, terrorists shelled the crossing. "We're working under a constant threat," says Ami Shaked, the Israeli in charge of the border station.

Shaked, 50, has his graying hair tied up in a ponytail and is wearing a blue baseball cap. The Kerem Shalom border crossing is not operated by the Israeli army but by civilians from the Israel Airports Authority. Moments later, the radio hanging on Shaked's shoulder starts crackling again. "Another truck," a female co-worker informs him. "What's he carrying?" asks Shaked. "Chocolate," she says. "It's actually too late," Shaked responds. "I've already made so many exceptions today."

Checking Every Pallet

His staff have checked 150 trucks on this day alone, which is more than half as many as over the preceding weeks. In reaction to pressure from the international community, the Israeli government last week eased its trade blockade, which it had imposed on the Gaza Strip exactly four years ago. At the time, Palestinian militants taking orders from Hamas raided a military post near the border crossing and abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit to the Gaza Strip.

From his air-conditioned office, Shaked can see every inch of the premises. He uses a joystick to control the surveillance cameras. Every pallet is checked -- with sniffer dogs, scanners and, when necessary, by hand. Shaked glances at the screen one last time. All of the Israelis have left the security area. "Tell the Palestinians that they can get rolling," he says over the radio.

On the other side of the border, Palestinian driver Subhi al-Chur, 47, is sweating profusely in the cab of his Volvo truck. He has been waiting in line for five long hours. "This is my first load after four years of unemployment," he says. That morning, Chur had received a call from a merchant in Gaza City who hired him to pick up a load of school satchels. The merchant had ordered them from China in 2007, but they had been held up by the blockade in the Israeli port of Ashdod. School satchels -- 2,400 of them.

Since perishable goods have priority, Chur will have to sit tight until evening comes. He doesn't care about the long wait -- the main thing is that he has work. Chur will receive 400 shekels, approximately €85 ($105), for the trip. "The situation is improving," says Chur, who is the father of 10 children. Another trader has already hired him for the next day to transport a load of home appliances.

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