TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel has all but ruled out fully reopening border crossings with the Gaza Strip as long as Hamas rules the enclave or stands to benefit from easing of the restrictions, a top adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
Hamas has made a shaky ceasefire, which ended Israel’s 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, conditional on Israel lifting its blockade, which, the adviser made clear, would not happen anytime soon.
The Islamist group, which won a 2006 Palestinian election and seized control of the Gaza Strip 18 months later after routing President Mahmoud Abbas’s security forces, has been shunned by major Western powers for refusing to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Speaking a day after Olmert spoke by telephone to U.S. President Barack Obama, the adviser expressed confidence the new administration in Washington would maintain George W. Bush’s policy of refusing to deal with or talk to Hamas.
The adviser spoke to a small group of reporters at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, on condition of anonymity.
The adviser said Israel would allow the “maximum” flow of food, medicine, oil and gas to the Gaza Strip to help its 1.5 million residents recover from the offensive, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, but a wider range of goods, including steel and cement needed for rebuilding, would have to wait.
Israel believes the restrictions will give it leverage to pressure Hamas to free Gilad Shalit, a captured Israeli soldier. Diplomats and aid agencies say the restrictions will doom Gaza’s reconstruction, estimated to cost at least $2 billion.
Olmert’s adviser said Israel’s underlying goal was to deny Hamas control over border crossings that could help it cement its hold on power. “If opening the passages will strengthen Hamas, we won’t do it,” he said.
European powers have called on Israel to reopen the border crossings fully.
The adviser said he doubted Hamas would agree to let Abbas’s security forces, backed by international observers, return to the border crossings, as Israel and Egypt have proposed.
He said Abbas’s forces did “something remarkable” in the West Bank by “containing riots and demonstrations” during the war in Gaza but added that they were not ready for Gaza.
“It’s a limited force. And in order to take it to Gaza, I think they need first more training, more forces, and this is something that takes time.”
Even if Hamas agreed to let Abbas’s Palestinian Authority run the crossings, Israel believes Hamas would maintain control behind the scenes and take over “within days,” he said.
“It’s all nice, as an idea. But at the end of the day, if the PA (Palestinian Authority) will not go back to control Gaza, the issue of passages will be controlled by Hamas, no matter how, in what disguise you’ll give it,” the adviser said.
“This will cement the ability of Hamas to rule, and to rule the passages,” he added.
Western diplomats and Palestinian officials complained that Israel was already throwing up obstacles to Gaza’s recovery.
This week, Israel told the United Nations and other aid groups planning for the rebuilding that they must apply for project-by-project Israeli approval and provide guarantees none of the work will benefit Hamas.
Israel has also prevented Abbas’s government in the occupied West Bank from transferring cash to the Gaza Strip to pay Palestinian Authority workers and others in need of assistance.
Olmert’s adviser denied preventing cash shipments but acknowledged the “big dilemma” facing Israel on reconstruction.
“The main focus now is how to allow all the needed goods, and I don’t think that cement or metal is the needed goods now for the population,” the adviser said, referring to materials Israel fears Hamas will use to make more weapons and bunkers.
The adviser said the goal was a mechanism that would ensure that credit for reconstruction does not accrue to the Iran-backed Hamas, which announced on Thursday that it would distribute up to 4,000 euros ($5,180) in cash to families hard hit by Israel’s offensive.
One potential disadvantage of funneling international reconstruction aid through the Palestinian Authority was that Hamas would be spared the financial burden of rebuilding, he added. Hamas could then use its resources to rebuild its military capabilities.
Editing by Tim Pearce