JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel on Wednesday opened its only cargo crossing with the Gaza Strip weeks after closing it amid a surge in violence with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing came as Egypt was stepping up efforts to broker a lasting cease-fire. It was not clear if the move was part of a broader deal in the works.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the reopening of the crossing was “a clear message to residents of the Strip: Quiet pays and violence doesn’t pay.”
Kerem Shalom is the main commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and serves as the primary avenue for food, fuel, construction materials and aid to enter the beleaguered Palestinian territory. Israel and Egypt have imposed an economically crippling blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the coastal territory from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Israel says the blockade is needed to contain Hamas, a militant group that seeks its destruction. While the closure has devastated Gaza’s economy, it has failed to oust Hamas or loosen its grip on power.
In the past month, Israel and Hamas have engaged in three rounds of heavy fighting, with Hamas firing dozens of rockets into Israel and the Israeli military carrying out dozens of airstrikes in Gaza. The latest fighting ended a week ago.
Israel halted Gaza commercial imports last month, and terminated fuel shipments almost two weeks ago in response to incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza that have burned forest and farmland in southern Israel. Israel temporarily suspended fuel shipments to Gaza in July for similar reasons.
Fuel shortages in Gaza have contributed to chronic power outages that have left its 2 million residents with just a few hours of electricity a day. The United Nations had warned that the closure of the crossing would make the situation even worse.
In addition to reopening the crossing Wednesday, Israel also eased restrictions on fishing off Gaza’s coast.
“The residents of Gaza have much to gain when the citizens of Israel enjoy peace and security, and much to lose when quiet is disturbed,” Lieberman said.
Hamas is demanding an end to the decade-long blockade as a condition for a long-term truce. Israel is believed to be offering a more limited easing of the closures.
Israel is demanding a halt to all rocket fire and incendiary balloon attacks, and wants Hamas to return the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers and free two Israeli civilians it is believed to be holding.
In recent months, Hamas has led regular mass protests along the border that are partly aimed at lifting the blockade. Since the protests began in March, at least 164 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including 121 protesters. During that time, a Gaza sniper killed an Israeli soldier.
Israel says it is defending its border against attempts by Hamas to infiltrate and carry out attacks. But it has come under heavy international criticism over the large number of unarmed protesters who have been killed or wounded.
Lieberman said his country “will do everything to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel, and if Hamas turns to violence again, we will respond immediately and in a much more severe manner than before.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing and the expansion of the fishing zone off Gaza, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Guterres “is encouraged to see that those concerned have responded to calls to avoid the devastating impact of yet another conflict on the civilian population in and around Gaza,” he said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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