Aid rots outside Gaza

People and goods are prevented from entering the Gaza Strip at the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing, January 2009. (Matthew Cassel)


AL-ARISH, Egypt (IPS) - Hundreds of thousands of tons of aid intended for the Gaza Strip is piling up in cities across Egypt’s North Sinai region, despite recent calls from the United Nations to ease aid flow restrictions to the embattled territory in the wake of Israel’s 22-day assault.

Food, medicine, blankets, infant food and other supplies for Gaza’s 1.5 million people, coming from governments and non-governmental agencies around the world, are being stored in warehouses, parking lots, stadiums and on airport runways across Egypt’s North Sinai governorate.

Egypt shares a 14-kilometer border with Gaza that has been closed more or less permanently since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007.

Flour, pasta, sugar, coffee, chocolate, tomato sauce, lentils, date bars, juice, chickpeas, blankets, hospital beds, catheter tubes and other humanitarian-based items are all sitting in at least eight storage points in and around al-Arish, a city in North Sinai approximately 50 kilometers from Gaza’s border.

Three months after the end of the war, much of the aid has either rotted or been irreparably damaged as a result of both rain and sunshine, and Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing.

“To be honest, most of this aid will never make it to Gaza,” a local government official told IPS on condition of anonymity. “A lot of the food here will have to be thrown away.”

The Gaza Strip was the target of Israel’s three-week operation codenamed “Cast Lead,” where both the enclave’s civilian population and an already decrepit infrastructure were pummeled by powerful Israeli weaponry, leaving some 1,400 dead and over 5,000 injured by the time a unilateral ceasefire was called by Israel 18 January.

The UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) head in Gaza, John Ging, told IPS last week that the stranglehold on relief efforts in the post-war period was having devastating consequences, both physical and emotional, on the strip’s population.

The last Situation Report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) 30 March stated that the “amounts and types of deliveries reaching Gaza continue being subject to random restrictions and unpredictable clearance procedures, creating major logistical problems for humanitarian agencies.”

Food aid and other essential humanitarian supplies for Gaza began pouring into Egypt at the outset of the war, and medical supplies were routed through Rafah — Gaza’s only crossing that bypasses Israel — throughout the assault, while food aid was directed through Israel.

All aid meant for Gaza via Egypt must currently pass through either al-Auja or Kerem Abu Sellem, Egypt’s commercial crossings with Israel, and is subject to both Israeli-Egyptian trade specifications and Israeli import law.

Much of what is being stored in North Sinai — including food items like lentils, pasta, chickpeas, and juice — has been deemed by Israel to be “non-essential” to life in the Gaza Strip.

Two thousand “family boxes” — containing essential supplies for Palestinian families and donated by the Italian non-governmental organization (NGO) Music for Peace — were recently rejected at the al-Auja crossing by Israeli authorities because they each contained a jar of honey, the NGO’s President, Stefano Robera, told IPS in al-Arish.

Representatives from international NGOs currently in both al-Arish and Rafah say not even a sliver of the aid donated is going through any of Egypt’s transit points, despite assurances by the Egyptian government that the Rafah crossing remains open for “humanitarian considerations.”

OCHA says Rafah was closed to all cargo for the month of March, and was opened for just two days to send blankets and mattresses into the Gaza Strip.

Since 27 December 2008, the day Israel launched its war, just 43 trucks of what OCHA calls “human food products” were sent into the Gaza Strip via Rafah. The first truckload was sent in 10 January, 2009, more than two weeks after the war began.

Some organizations coordinating their aid through Egypt say North Sinai governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha asked them to simply donate the goods to local NGOs. Other witnesses told IPS that Egyptian security forces tasked with guarding aid supplies have been giving it away to residents of al-Arish.

The Rafah border crossing opened in November 2005 when Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed an Agreement on Movement and Access as part of Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip.

In coordination with the PA, Egypt allowed passengers, cargo and humanitarian aid to pass under the supervision of both EU monitors and Israeli security. When Hamas, the Islamist movement democratically elected in 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Egypt closed its border with the coastal enclave.

The Egyptian government has since refused to open the Rafah crossing to any cargo or non-medical humanitarian aid, leaving the supplies in a state of political limbo and Gaza’s population grappling with the after-effects of both deadly war and continued economic siege.

Human rights organizations have recently said that not only Israel but Egypt, the EU and the US could be in violation of international law for failing to adhere to the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, and consequently violating the basic human rights of Gaza’s 1.5 million people — particularly in the post-war period.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.