Aid Agencies Slam Gaza Blockade

Forty international aid agencies and NGOs released a joint statement Wednesday condemning Israel’s blockade of Gaza, to mark the second anniversary of the coastal territory being hermetically sealed off from the outside world. It read, in part:

"We, United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, express deepening concern over Israel’s continued blockade of the Gaza Strip which has now been in force for two years.

"These indiscriminate sanctions are affecting the entire 1.5 million population of Gaza, and ordinary women, children and the elderly are the first victims."

Simultaneously, an increasingly concerned U.S. administration is pressuring Israel to change its Gaza policy and alleviate unnecessary suffering. Three weeks ago U.S. officials sent a diplomatic letter to Israeli government officials expressing alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem say the note was delivered following agreement between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, and senior administration officials.

The officials argue that Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s mostly civilian population is counterproductive.

The U.S. has also rejected Israel’s argument that the opening of Gaza’s borders is linked to the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian guerrillas three years ago.

The Gaza embargo was one of the chief subjects of discussion when Mitchell visited Israel recently. Clinton raised the subject once again when Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met her in Washington Wednesday.

Israel started a gradual blockade of Gaza’s borders when the second Intifadah, or Palestinian uprising, broke out in 2000. The closure was tightened when Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas fighters in June 2006.

However, following Hamas’s coup in June 2007, when the Islamic resistance organization routed western-backed Fatah forces affiliated with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel hermetically sealed off the coastal territory.

Israel allows in only a bare amount of humanitarian aid. Most food products and other goods, including construction material desperately needed to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure devastated by Israeli bombing during the war in January, are forbidden.

So desperate are Gazans that several tried to smuggle nuts and coffee into Gaza mixed into animal feed. Both items are banned by Israel.

The Ad-Damir Human Rights Foundation warned this week that animal feed comprises chemicals and waste, and consuming the nuts and coffee could have adverse health effects.

"The situation is desperate, devastating and unbearable. Each day that passes brings more misery and suffering," said John Ging, head of Gaza’s UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), one of the signatories to the joint statement.

When asked what good the statement would do in light of years of complaints falling on deaf ears, Ging told IPS, "We will not give up telling the truth. We have a responsibility to innocent civilians.

"We are convinced that if the policy and decision makers behind the blockade could witness the situation in Gaza first-hand, they would change their minds. Those who don’t believe what we are saying, we invite them to come to Gaza and see the situation for themselves first hand."

"We were determined to mark the two-year sealing of the borders with a coordinated effort," said Mike Bailey of Oxfam, another signatory to the statement.

Bailey expressed frustration at the ever-changing list of goods Israel allows in. School textbooks, clothes, shoes, toys, lentils, pasta, pumpkin, fruit juice, chocolate, cigarettes, toilet paper, musical instruments and seedlings are amongst the items banned.

"Every month the list changes, so we are not sure what will and won’t be permitted to enter the following month, and this makes it harder to coordinate relief," Bailey told IPS.

A decision by the Israeli government in March to enable unrestricted entry of all foodstuffs provided the source is approved by the Israeli authorities, has not been implemented.

Human rights groups argue that there is no security basis for the list of banned goods. The U.S. administration has taken this argument up and demanded answers from Israel.

A U.S. protest note, sent to Israel’s foreign and defense ministries, and to the Prime Minister’s office, demanded a more liberal opening of the border crossings to facilitate reconstruction.

The U.S. first wants adequate amounts of food, medicine and cash to be transferred into the territory. It also wants the borders to be opened sufficiently to allow imports and exports to rebuild Gaza’s decimated economy.

According to a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report released Jun. 15, the number of truckloads of humanitarian goods entering Gaza on a monthly basis now is a quarter of the number that entered prior to Israel’s blockade.

In May, 82 drug items in Gaza were at zero level, up from 65 in April. At the same time, 95 disposable items had reached zero level, up slightly from 90 in the previous month.

During May, the World Health Organization (WHO) coordinated the entry of one shipment of medical drugs or disposables, while another four shipments of materials were put on hold by the Israeli authorities. The latter shipments contain x-ray materials, as well as medical and IT equipment.

Petrol, apart from small quantities for UNRWA, and to operate emergency generators at wastewater treatment plants and hospitals, has been banned since November last year. Gaza is instead relying on deep underground smuggling tunnels from Egypt for both petrol and other essentials.

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.