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Crux of Gaza cease-fire: border crossings

Israel temporarily closed its crossings into Gaza Tuesday after a soldier was killed by a roadside bomb. After the attack, Israeli forces killed one Palestinian and wounded a senior militant.

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Since the cease-fires were declared, Israel has ruled out fully opening crossings or letting in heavier materials – such as cement – for reconstruction.

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"At the moment, the priority is given for the urgent stuff: food, medical supplies, and other basics," says Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman. "But we are not willing to rebuild Hamas's bunkers and underground tunnels, and we're not willing to help give them materials to transform into rockets to fire at us."

Israel is waiting for a reconstruction plan from the international community, he says, which is expected to be presented in a few days. And it will insist it be followed. "Each piece of metal and piping will reach a specific destination and not just be sold on the open market," Major Lerner adds. "We have intentions to help them rebuild, but not to supply things for the Hamas terrorist infrastructure."

Part of the Hamas government's requirements for a lasting cease-fire is that the crossings be open on a steady basis. "If they don't open the borders, the cease-fire is fragile and it will explode," warns Mohammad Awwad, the politburo chief of the Hamas government in Gaza. Most complicated will be reaching a formula to satisfy this demand, given Israel's need to protect its citizens, 1 in 8 of whom are in rocket range from Gaza.

Following its disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, many Israelis adopted the stance that the Gaza was "no longer our problem." But with Israel controlling the access by land and sea, most Palestinians view the territory as occupied. Following Hamas's June 2007 coup, Israel declared it a "hostile territory."

The problem, however, is that in that since the 1967 war, in which Israel seized this coastal territory from Egypt – much of it filled with Palestinian refugees from the war for Israel's establishment 1948 – Gaza was increasingly linked to Israel's economy. Until the second intifada in 2000, about 130,000 Gazans worked daily in Israel. The remnants of this connection remain – from Gaza's use of the Israeli shekel as its currency to the phones that are reached by calling Israel's '08' country code.

Egypt maintains only the Rafah Crossing, which is primarily a pedestrian terminal and not equipped to handle heavy commercial traffic. Egyptian officials have temporarily loosened the tight restrictions on who and what they allow to pass through Rafah, but they remain either unwilling or unable to provide for the needs of Gazans, in part because Egypt does not want to assume responsibility for the territory.

Mr. Mitchell arrives tasked with solving the crossings challenge. So far, Israel has proposed a partial easing of traffic at the crossings along with a cease-fire that would last a year and a half. Hamas rejects that proposal. It wants Israel to fully lift the blockade.

Nonetheless, Mukhaimar Abusada, a Gaza political scientist, says Hamas desperately needs to show it gained something – namely access to the outside world – in the war with Israel. "You can't keep claiming victory when what we see is catastrophe."