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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.

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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.

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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.