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Palestinian goods begin steady flow into Israel

KARNI CARGO CROSSING, Israel -- Palettes of fresh produce, seafood, and office furniture rolled into Israel from the Gaza Strip last week, marking the first substantial flow of goods from the economically battered Palestinian territory since February.

The shipments were made possible by tentatively loosened Israeli security closures at the heavily guarded crossing points into Gaza, a policy that Amir Peretz, the dovish leader of the Labor Party, ordered in mid-May, shortly after taking over as defense minister.

``The view of Amir Peretz is that we will do whatever needs to be done to fight terrorism, but he believes we can do that while relieving the stress on the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank," a spokeswoman for the defense minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Peretz's position on the Gaza crossings signals a departure for the Israeli government, which has imposed a strict regime of closures on the movements of goods and people across Palestinian Authority borders in response to terror alerts, especially after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

Palestinian officials said they're pleased with the change in the last two weeks -- a steady flow of imports into Gaza, and during the last nine days of May about 20 truckloads of exports a day out of Gaza, compared with zero during much of the previous four months. But they cautioned that it is far less than what Israel had agreed to in a widely touted agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November, which set a target of 150 truckloads of exports a day by the end of last year.

Peretz's commitment has yet to be tested by the kind of specific threats of attack that Israeli military officials say prompted them to keep the crossing completely closed for 58 days this year, about half of all business days.

Closures during the harvest season this year prevented most of Gaza's cash crops from reaching world markets, dooming a multimillion-dollar program funded by international donors to kick-start Gaza's agricultural sector.

The new defense minister did not wait long after taking office to announce his approach.

``He thinks that if the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip will have sufficient food, drugs, anything to try to help the economy, that will decrease the level of terror, and the level of people joining terror groups, and alleviate the pressure," Peretz's spokeswoman said.

The Israeli-controlled cargo terminal at Karni is virtually the only conduit for commercial goods in and out of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian farmers and factory owners depend on the crossing to get their goods to world markets. Additionally, most of the staples, medical supplies, and consumer goods that reach Gaza's 1.4 million residents flow through Karni.

The recent sudden flurry of trade could inject energy into Gaza's moribund economy, which has been further damaged by the international boycott of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority. The boycott was imposed over the refusal by Hamas -- considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and European Union -- to recognize Israel and reject violence.

And it marks a rare warming of the relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, according to Palestinian, Israeli, and international officials who have negotiated to secure the free flow of goods and people across Gaza's borders since Israel withdrew from the territory in August.

But the opening is precarious, as was evident during a visit to the crossing last week. While forklift drivers loaded medicine, fruit, and furniture under the watchful eye of private security guards and Israeli soldiers, deafening mortar thuds rocked the compound, sometimes at a rate of three per minute. The attacks were conducted by Israeli gunners shelling Gaza in response to rocket attacks launched against Israel from the strip.

Israeli defense officials say Palestinian militants are constantly attempting to attack the crossing.

And there's evident tension between the defense minister's desire for more openness and the Israeli military's interest in minimizing risk at the crossings.

Israeli military officials responsible for security at the crossings say Palestinian militants have targeted Karni. In April, Palestinian security officials thwarted an attempted bombing of the cargo terminal. The month before, Israeli officials found a tunnel 50 yards south of the crossing.

But Palestinian officials have accused Israel of exaggerating the security threat at the crossing in order to completely close it some days, and to only open it for a few hours on other days, instead of for a full 15-hour workday -- as mandated by the US-brokered agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November.

``There's really a specific threat to the crossing," said Israeli Colonel Nir Press , who is responsible for border crossings.

He said militants test the security systems at the border almost daily, for example hiding weapons in a textile shipment from Gaza to see whether it triggers an alert on the Israeli side.

He said Israel had offered Palestinians an alternative cargo crossing at Kerem Shalom, near the Egyptian border, when security alerts forced the closure of Karni in January. Palestinians refused to use Kerem Shalom, calling the move a thinly veiled attempt to break the US-brokered agreement and close Karni and move all freight traffic to a more remote and expensive-to-reach location.

Palestinians have accepted a limited amount of humanitarian aid through another, smaller crossing point at Sufa.

The United States and the Middle East Quartet, which represents the United States, European Union, United Nations, and the Russian Federation , have pressed Israel hard to keep the crossings open.

UN and international aid groups have highlighted the harm that the Karni closures cause -- not only to the Gaza economy, but also to the basic quality of life as foodstuffs and medical supplies have trouble getting into the strip.

``While Israel has legitimate security concerns, we need to find operational solutions that don't involve closing the crossing," said John Ging, the Gaza director of the UN Relief and Works Agency, one of the main UN agencies that distribute aid to Palestinians. ``It's not a solution to create a humanitarian crisis."

Some tensions are apparent within the Israeli coalition government, which is controlled by the centrist Kadima Party, while Peretz is from left-of-center Labor.

``Karni wasn't closed because we wanted it to be closed. It was closed because there was a specific terrorist threat," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry . ``Unfortunately, I can't tell you that Karni won't be closed again."

In early May, Peretz, as a prelude to his new policy, said 20,000 Palestinian workers could enter Israel from the West Bank, restoring movement to the level that existed before a two-month closure imposed by his predecessor.

And on the northern border between Gaza and Israel, a new passenger terminal has been constructed at Erez. It will be equipped to handle 35,000 commuters a day, a major increase over the 7,500 that the current facility can handle.

``This minister has put humanitarian concerns high on his priority list," Peretz's spokeswoman said.

Anne Barnard of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Gaza.

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