“Return to sender” - Israel blocks the mail to Gaza

Palestinians in line at a post office in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

During the last four years of siege, Israel has tightly restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of the occupied Gaza Strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority refugees.

Palestinians in Gaza cannot even communicate by mail, as Israel also severely restricts or delays the delivery of post including letters and packages.

Mahmoud Shehab owns a small factory in Gaza City that has made household water heaters for the past 15 years. Recently a friend of Shehab’s in London advised him to try to export his heaters. During a visit to Gaza, the friend was impressed by Shehab’s products and offered to send him some samples of parts that could be used to manufacture the products to a higher standard and produce a heater that would be considered environmentally-friendly.

“I did receive some catalogues and a small part,” Shehab said, but “for the past three months I have been trying to bring in British sample equipment. I am exhausted from phone calls to Majdi [his friend], and to courier offices in Gaza and Israel. I have lost about $600 in phone calls.”

Shehab still hasn’t given up. He says he has heard that someone from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, who is currently based in London, is planning a visit home to see his family. “He has been asked if he would agree to bring the equipment to Gaza with him,” Shehab said.

For Shehab the inability to send and receive material is devastating: “Can you imagine, If I had received the parts I need in the past three months, I would have already shipped at least one sample water heater back to London.”

Despite Israel’s announcement that it has “eased” the blockade of Gaza in the wake of its attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla last May — when nine activists were shot dead by Israeli commandos — Palestinians in Gaza still have severe problems receiving mail. Israel especially blocks electronic equipment, which affects doctors, those needing hearing aids, electricians, technicians of all kinds and journalists.

Indeed, last week EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Israel had largely failed to live up to its promises to ease the siege. Ashton, speaking on behalf of EU foreign ministers, said that too few goods to meet humanitarian and reconstruction needs were flowing in to Gaza and “at the present time, we think that what’s happened with Gaza is unsatisfactory, the volume of goods is not increasing as significantly as it needs to.”

Yousef al-Mansi, Minister of Post and Telecommunications with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada that Israel continues to block the regular movement of mail in and out of Gaza.

“They now prevent everything. For example, for the past eight months they have restricted entry of papers and documents. We have been in constant contact with concerned postal bodies worldwide in order to pressure the Israeli side,” al-Mansi said. According to the postal ministry, in the summer of 2008, Israel withheld about twenty trucks loaded with mail packages from abroad. When the cargo was released in the winter of 2009, most of the items inside packages were either damaged or expired. International courier offices in the region say that Israel permits only papers, documents and some clothes into Gaza.

Israel’s mail blockade has attracted some international solidarity. In August, the Canadian postal workers union announced its support for activist efforts to send a Canadian boat to try to break the blockade on Gaza. The union said it would symbolically deliver mail to Gaza on the boat. This followed the announcement by Canada Post, the country’s postal service, that it would no longer accept mail destined for Gaza since there was no way to deliver it.

Explaining his members’ support for the boat to Gaza, Denis Lemelin, president of the Canadian postal workers union, told The Star newspaper “Mail is something that’s important for people. It’s contact with members of family and the outside world. It’s always important to find an alternative and this alternative is the boat to Gaza” (“Postal union gives stamp of approval to Gaza mail mission,” 25 August 2010).

For Mahmoud Shehab there is no immediate relief in sight. “It is my right to proceed with my production,” he said. “I wonder why the Israelis prevent the entry of the equipment I need?”

The restrictions on the mail are just one more way Israel keeps Palestinians in Gaza cut off and prevents them using their own creativity to improve their situation.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.