Groups warn of humanitarian consequences of Gaza closure

Palestinians in Gaza demonstrate near the Rafah border, now closed to travelers. (Erica Silverman/IRIN)


GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IRIN) - Despite ongoing protests calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation, petrol is once again flowing through the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza after supplies were cut for a week due to the unrest, according to the Palestinian General Petroleum Corporation.

The corporation reports that almost one million tons of diesel has been pumped under the border into the Gaza Strip in the past two days. At least 210,000 liters of petrol has also come through and more is expected, alleviating immediate fears of a fuel shortage.

And yet the humanitarian implications of an ongoing crisis in Egypt for Gaza are still concerning UN and nongovernmental aid agencies there.

The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) office in Gaza told IRIN that they are closely monitoring the situation on the ground and the possible humanitarian consequences that could result from the current instability of the tunnel trade.

Since Egypt and Israel sealed their borders with Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas took power amidst factional fighting with the rival Fatah party, allowing only a very limited movement of people and goods, Gaza has largely depended on supplies brought through tunnels from Egypt, particularly fuel and building materials.

While Israel has increased its exports of food and other consumer goods into Gaza since June 2010, cement and steel are still banned and the limited petrol it allows through is often double the cost of Egyptian fuel.

The regional volatility created by the current power vacuum in Egypt, coupled with Israel’s tight control on imports and exports to and from Gaza, leave the 1.5 million people living there particularly vulnerable to shortages.

An explosion at a gas pumping station in Egypt’s northern Sinai region on 5 February, attributed to “subversive elements” by Egyptian state TV, sparked a massive fire along a crucial pipeline to Israel and Jordan. Israel relies on this gas line for 40 percent of its needs.

The Israeli media reports that the explosion will not lead to power cuts there. But there are concerns among humanitarian agencies that if the electricity supply is affected, then the 120 MW sent to Gaza from Israel every day will be the first to be cut.

Patients affected

Gaza’s sole official border crossing into Egypt, Rafah, also remains closed. Gaza’s ministry of interior says 150 medical referral cases are among 1,000 authorized travelers waiting to cross into Egypt.

Last month, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in five patients who applied to leave Gaza for a hospital appointment in Israel could not, either because they were delayed or their permit to pass through Erez crossing was refused. In the same month, approximately 600 patients crossed through Rafah to seek medical treatment in Egypt.

On average, 500 patients, usually those with chronic diseases or who have had permits refused by Israel to leave through Erez, cross through Rafah every month. Since Rafah closed on 30 January, no patients from Gaza have been able to pass through.

WHO is monitoring the current situation closely. Mahmoud Daher, officer in charge of WHO in Gaza, said “Around 80 percent of applications by patients to pass through Erez are usually approved. Those 20 percent who don’t get approval generally go for treatment in Egypt through Rafah.

“In cases of closure, like we’re seeing now, those 20 percent will struggle to get adequate health care in Gaza. The longer Rafah remains closed the higher the possibility that these patients’ prognosis will be affected. This is a very worrying situation.”

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