Israel's Gaza blockade: Millions of dollars worth of aid piles up in warehouses

As the US ramps up Gaza aid projects worth $140 million, stockpiles of everything from steel pipes to medical needles will take months to clear out after the recent easing of Israel's Gaza blockade. Many items are still being blocked.

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    A Palestinian boy carries boxed lanterns along a street in Gaza City on Tuesday, as Muslims across the world prepare for Ramadan. Ramadan is different in Gaza this year thanks to the partial relaxation of Israel's blockade, allowing shops to fill with special items for the occasion.
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In a half-dozen warehouses in this southern Israeli port, refrigerators and roofing materials for Israeli homes share space with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of PVC pipes, generators, and other equipment intended for 37 wells and water treatment facilities in the Gaza Strip.

Stacked in other warehouses close to the Gaza border are steel pipes and cement for building the facilities’ foundations – part of $85 million set aside for water projects by UNICEF and other international donors.

Most of the materials for Gaza have sat idle for a year, some as long as three years, according to the Palestinian water authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

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Israel sealed off the tiny coastal territory when the Islamist movement Hamas, considered by the US and Israel to be a terrorist organization, violently ousted its rival, Fatah, in 2007. Israel maintains that the blockade is essential to preserving its security, but international critics say the consequent humanitarian crisis amounts to collective punishment.

After its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in May, Israel eased the restrictions – allowing some aid to start to arrive at project sites inside Gaza.

But as the US ramps up a deployment of Gaza recovery projects worth $140 million, aid agencies here caution that with only one of four crossings open and a time-consuming monitoring system, it will be many more months before current reconstruction projects – let alone new ones – are completed.

UN monitoring and log books show that many big-ticket construction materials are still being blocked, despite the new rules allowing them through under aid agency supervision and with the consent of the Palestinian Authority.

“No one is buying anything extra at all,” because there are no guarantees that the materials will make it into Gaza, says a UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Many materials or finished goods are still being delayed or denied, so organizations “are not moving forward with existing projects – things that are already approved.”

Israel increases truckloads per day to 250

Donors say they debate every line item with Israeli officials and, as before, must track and photograph items as small as a nail from its point of origin to the wall in which its hammered.

For their part, Israeli officials deny that any materials are being held up, and cite lingering concern that concrete slated for houses, for example, might be used to build bunkers.

Israel’s cabinet approved 31 aid projects on July 5 “in principle” – about 1.4 percent of the value of the UN’s Gaza program – and said 45 more would be green-lighted soon.

Last week, Israel expanded the capacity at Kerem Shalom to 250 trucks a day. It plans to reach 400 a day and transfer a conveyor belt there before the first half of 2011, says Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

This was up from an average of 92 trucks a day, six days a week, before the blockade was eased, but still 100 less per day than the average for 2007, before the blockade.

“We are willing and open to expanding both the volume of materials going in and the projects,” he says. “It’s an ongoing dialogue. We want this process to work.”

He blames any delays on coordination problems with Palestinian officials.

Rebhy el-Sheikh, the deputy director of the Palestinian Water Authority, disputes this. “We instantly follow up – and all the time are told [donors] are awaiting a security-related permission.”

Delays cost donors millions

By October, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) expects to have spent $140 million on Gaza recovery projects, some of it coming from a $400 million “downpayment” to Gaza and the West Bank that President Obama announced in June. USAID is still negotiating with Israeli officials to get approval for 9 of its 21 proposed projects.

In the meantime, delays have cost donors. USAID spent as much as $1.5 million a month in the past year on salaries, grant costs, trucks, and a warehouse in Ramallah at a time when it acknowledged that nongovernmental organization partners were operating at “a very low level of activity.”

USAID spokesman Adnan Joulani said it was careful not to buy items until it knew they could be shipped to Gaza, thereby averting higher warehouse charges.

Storage delays and a lack of available materials for the first phase of the largest water-sector project, a $75 million project led by the World Bank and on hold for about four years, have added $3 million to its cost, Mr. Sheikh says. He said just $500,000 of a budgeted $30 million in materials in materials have been purchased due to concern over storage costs.

A year ago, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit with a contractor when a machine designed to crush debris – in this case, the remains of evacuated settlements – was delayed for two years at the port, says Basil Nasser, the head of its Gaza office.

The contract was canceled. The UNDP is now trying to recoup an extra $2.5 million it spent storing materials to build homes for refugees.

Mr. Nasser's office has spent $60,000 on salaries in the past three years for workers who did no work because the program was “stopped,” he says.

Welding tools, car engine parts sit idle

Much of the equipment still blocked from entering Gaza due to cited security concerns is also the most expensive – and, aid agencies say, the most needed to assist the 1.5 million people living there in increasingly dire circumstances.

Medical supplies and more than $1 million in computer equipment have been held up for testing requirements that should not be imposed on humanitarian goods, says Tim Henry, a logistics officer for UNRWA. He says Israeli officials informed him last week that those requirements will be lifted in September. Needles, for instance, had been banned because the manufacturer's stamp was not on each wrapper.

Welding tools, hydraulic presses and parts for a car engine – equipment for a vocational training center – still sit in shrink-wrapped piles in a warehouse at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s Jerusalem headquarters.

UNRWA has paid more than $60,000 to store similar equipment in Ashdod since 2007. Together, the equipment is worth $450,000. The United States is by far the agency’s largest donor, giving it $268 million to spend last year on projects it saw as most urgent.

The biggest-ticket items still banned from Gaza are parked next to the warehouse: two of 15 sanitation vehicles worth $1.2 million. One of them is designed for trash removal. The other, outfitted with a large tank, is designed to suck up sewage.

At least 50 million liters of raw or poorly-treated sewage is released from Gaza into the sea daily, much of it flowing from open roadside waste channels near refugee camps, municipal officials report.

While materials for the biggest water-treatment facility are still stored in Ashdod, and the plants themselves are years from projected completion, the vehicles could be used immediately.

“The state of refugee camps in Gaza is so lamentably poor that it’s really very shocking that these vehicles are not being allowed in,” says Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman.

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