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.
Jerusalem; and Gaza City, Gaza
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.