Pope's urging brings Gaza blockade to forefront

With no clear guidelines for what Israel will allow in, aid groups have run into trouble with everything from 90 tons of pasta to nutritional bars mistranslated as steel bars.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Catholic priests attend a mass led by Pope Benedict XVI outside the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem Wednesday. Pope Benedict visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Wednesday to hammer home his calls for an independent Palestinian state and the lifting of Israel's embargo on Gaza.
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Though the rockets and shells have fallen quiet in Gaza since the January war with Israel, the prices of cooking fuel and many foods have skyrocketed. Due to both the war's aftermath and the tight restrictions Israel enforces at the checkpoints on Gaza's border, many Gazans are tightening their belts – literally.

"We owe the cooking-gas man money, we had to reduce the amount of vegetables we buy, and things like meat and chicken are out of the question," says Amal Sharif, a resident of Gaza's Shati Refugee Camp and mother of 10 whose hospitalized husband is unable to support the family. "We visit supermarkets very rarely. I usually cook beans and rice and other cheap things and try to make them last over a few days."

The Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has served as a way to pressure Hamas since the militant group seized power in 2007, has until recently has been out of the international spotlight. But now it is moving to the forefront of pressing Israeli-Palestinian issues.

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Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday, specifically mentioned the plight of Gazans, telling them: "Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted."

A week ago United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon also called for an end to the ban, which prevents all but the most basic supplies from entering Gaza, saying it was "unacceptable."

Under increasing international pressure on Israel to change its policy regarding shipments into the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to promise US President Barack Obama when they meet next week that Israel will remove all restrictions on foodstuffs headed for Gaza, aides said.

Pasta, lentils, jam all rejected

During the last days of previous prime minister Ehud Olmert's term, the Israeli cabinet made a decision that there would be "unfettered" access of food and medical supplies to Gaza. But Israel's Defense Ministry, which controls the borders, has yet to implement that decision. That was in late March. But numerous aid agencies say they've seen no change, and myriad food products languish on trucks and in warehouses, are rejected as "luxury" items that don't fall into the category of humanitarian assistance, or are turned down for unexplained reasons.

"The government of Israel said it would allow the transfer of food items on an unrestricted basis to Gaza, after it's been ascertained that these are food products. But we have not seen any change on the ground," says Sari Bashi, the executive director of Gisha, the Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, based in Tel Aviv.

"Even if they say all food is allowed, Israel has created an extremely onerous bureaucratic process that has made it nearly impossible to get many basic foodstuffs into Gaza." Ms. Bashi says. The process includes complicated manifests of food being sent in by various aid organizations, which can be rejected at any point in the process and not always for clear reasons. Trucks are checked, unloaded, and reloaded several times over the course of days, raising shipping costs. In recent months, all of the following items have been rejected at one point, and later allowed in only after it became an embarrassing international issue: pasta; lentils; strawberry jam; chocolate; and halvah, a Middle Eastern sweet made of sesame. A shipment of "reinforced nutritional bars" were turned back because low-level military officials misunderstood the manifest and thought they were steel bars, which – like other building materials – are not allowed into Gaza.

Even tin cans are not allowed because they could be melted down for other purposes, making it difficult for farmers in Gaza to turn vegetables into canned food that will last longer.

Bureaucratic maze

There is no published list of items of what is or isn't allowed into Gaza, which has kept aid agencies guessing.

"We've asked them, 'Please, supply us with lists, so we know upfront,'" says William Corcoran, president of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). For most of its eight years operating in Gaza, ANERA was able to deliver food and medical supplies relatively unhindered, but last November, everything changed, he says. Now, it's "a very cumbersome system, more complicated than it's ever been before."

He says ANERA has banded together with other aid groups – including Save the Children, World Vision, and Mercy Corps – to get clarity on the issue, but has been unable to get any definitive answers. The group has also tried to address issues with individual shipments by going to the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli customs, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

"Each issue is looked into on an individual basis," says Lt. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, in a recent interview. "Things like dairy, meat, rice, wheat, flour, fruit, vegetables, and medications are allowed. Food items and other goods are going in every day."

But not, it seems, in the amount they were before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. According to Gisha's figures, the level of goods getting into Gaza is now about 25 percent of what it was before June 2007. Until that point, about 9,400 trucks a month went into Gaza, and since June 2007, the number has been down to 2,200 trucks a month.

"The situation is forcing people into dependence," Bashi says. "Israel is less likely to approve shipments to the private sector, and as a result, businesses can't survive and Gazans are becoming more reliant on food assistance."

Many Gazans are making do by eating fewer meals per day, according to a recent UN study. Families are relying on more flour and rice, much of it provided cost-free by aid agencies, and eating far less protein because meat, poultry, fish, and eggs have become unaffordable. In the survey, conducted on behalf of several UN bodies looking to provide relief aid to Gaza, Gazans interviewed said their household expenditures increased 40 to 45 percent on three basic needs: water, food, and "psychosocial services." Fifty percent of female-headed households say that they have an increased expenditure on food since the war, and 42 percent on water.

Ms. Sharif gets food assistance in the form of the basics that are distributed by aid agencies in Gaza, and which are allowed into Gaza unrestricted. These include oil, flour, sugar, rice, and milk.

But buying eggs is a rarity: Prices have doubled because of the large number of chicken coops destroyed during Israel's bombardment of Gaza in January.

"I used to buy two cartoons of eggs a week, but after the war the prices of one carton jumped and I stopped buying it," she says. "There are many things that we stopped buying completely: meat, fish, chicken. Even the price of fruit is higher." These days, moreover, she usually prepares two meals a day, not three.

"We eat breakfast at 11 a.m., lunch at 5 or 6 p.m.," she says. "So no one needs to eat dinner after that."

Christa Case Bryant contributed from Boston.

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