Gaza needs more aid

A Palestinian refugee receives food at a United Nations food aid distribution center in al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, March 2009. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - John Ging, head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, has urged Israel to ease aid flow restrictions that are having a devastating effect on the 1.5 million inhabitants.

Ging says the amount of aid being allowed into Gaza at present is “wholly and totally inadequate. It’s having a very devastating impact on the physical circumstances and also the mindset of people on the ground,” Ging told IPS.

According to a report released last month by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), on average 127 aid trucks a day are entering Gaza.

OCHA stated that this was insufficient and way below the 475 that entered daily one month prior to Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007.

“We need access,” Ging said. “It’s the number one issue. It’s the number two issue. It’s the number three issue, and so on. Until we get it, there’s nothing as important as solving the access issue.”

The UNRWA head said that all the crossings into Gaza should be opened and that the few open only on a limited basis and to certain individuals should be opened permanently to all. Israel says there is a security issue involved in opening all the crossings permanently.

OCHA says the crossings are opened on a seemingly arbitrary basis. Ging added that it was uncertain why crossings were opened at certain times and not at others.

Human rights organizations have argued that the sealing of the coastal territory is a form of collective punishment by Israel against Gaza’s Hamas leadership, and that the civilian population is bearing the brunt.

Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s UN ambassador, stated last month that only after the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas fighters in 2006, was released, would expansion of border openings be discussed.

At present Israel is only allowing what it considers essential humanitarian aid into Gaza. “Luxury items” such as chocolate, jam, fruit juice, toilet paper, soap, pasta, lentils and cigarettes have been barred.

“Eighty percent of the goods that are allowed in comprise food,” Mike Bailey, an Oxfam spokesman told IPS. “The rest is medical and other relief supplies. However, agricultural products such as seedlings, water pipes and fertilizer essential for reviving the agricultural sector have either been denied or delayed.”

The decimated agricultural sector is under further threat due to access restrictions imposed by the Israeli military. Farmers with land near Israel’s “buffer zone” up to 500 meters from the Gaza-Israeli border are prevented from tending their fields on risk of being shot.

Gaza’s fishing industry is also on the verge of collapse as the Israeli navy has banned fishing boats from going further than three nautical miles from the shore.

“The education sector has also been crippled. Computers, books, stationery and other educational accessories are also being denied entry,” said Bailey.

“Additionally, concrete, cement, steel and glass are barred, thus preventing the tens of thousands of homes that were destroyed and damaged during the Gaza war from being rebuilt and repaired,” he added.

Antoine Grand, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sub-delegation to Gaza, says that the ICRC is still negotiating with the Israelis to allow waste water and water plant spare parts and repair equipment into Gaza.

“We have been waiting for several months but so far we have not been permitted to import this equipment which is essential for the projects we have under way to repair sewage and water plants damaged during the Gaza war,” Grand told IPS.

OCHA says in its report that supplies of cooking gas are still well below market needs. No commercial benzene and diesel, apart from 391,300 liters for UNRWA operations, have entered Gaza since November last year.

About 150,000 Gazans are still deprived of access to sufficient quantities of safe drinking water, while 90 percent experience intermittent power cuts. Gazans in need of medical attention abroad are struggling to get permits.

Meanwhile, as controversy rages around the restriction of humanitarian aid into Gaza, a new dispute has arisen over the UN’s appointment of Justice Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, to head an investigation into war crimes in Gaza.

The former war crimes prosecutor will head a four-member team whose mandate stems from a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council at a special session 12 January. Israel is not keen on the UN investigating its military offensive in Gaza earlier this year. Israeli attacks left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead, most of them civilian, and nearly 5,000 wounded.

International human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and several Israelis rights groups have accused Israel of war crimes and of using controversial weapons indiscriminately.

Israel has denied committing war crimes, and complained of an anti-Israel bias. A number of Israelis say that Goldstone, despite being Jewish, is biased against Israel. But some Arabs and Muslims have expressed concern that he would be too soft on Israel because of his background.

However, Goldstone’s credentials are impeccable. A former anti-apartheid activist and court judge, he served as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

“It is in the interest of all Palestinians and Israelis that the allegations of war crimes and serious human rights violations related to the recent conflict on all sides be investigated,” Goldstone said in a statement.

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