Israel joined Egypt today in easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip amid ongoing international anger over its killing of nine Turkish citizens in a raid on a flotilla seeking to bring aid to Gaza earlier this month.
Israel removed cookies, soda, canned fruit, and other snack foods from the list of goods barred from entry into the impoverished territory, though it maintained its ban on imports of cement and other building materials that Gazans and international aid groups say the territory needs to recover from the pounding it took in Israel's 2008-2009 offensive, which left much of the infrastructure in ruins and destroyed hundreds of homes.
Israeli officials said the easing had nothing to do with the controversial raid on the flotilla, which prompted dozens of governments to call for an end to an economic blockade that has pushed Gazan unemployment above 40 percent. But it follows a similar symbolic easing by Egypt, Israel's partner in the blockade of Gaza and its Islamist Hamas government.
Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing with Gaza last week to a select group of individuals, either Palestinians with medical conditions that can't be treated at home or those with enough clout to wrangle a pass to get through.
The view from Rafah now is a lens onto complicated internal politics and economic contradictions in Gaza, where most people live in deep poverty but many are prospering.
An "open" Gaza border may conjure images of thousands of people rushing to escape the densely populated strip where, according to Amnesty International, 80 percent of the population depends on external aid for survival.
But in the stifling midday heat on a recent day, the Rafah crossing was quiet, save an occasional family carrying suitcases into Egypt or a pickup truck laden with household appliances headed for Gaza. Only 200 people have been entering Egypt daily since the border opened, according to press reports.
Tough to get out
This may be due to the difficulty in leaving the Strip. On the Egyptian side, most Gazans said they had waited between five and 10 hours to exit and many said it was their third or fourth attempt since the border opened last week.
"Those with connections [to Hamas] can get out," said a woman who had been trying to leave Gaza for three days. "For those of us without, it's more difficult." She was on her way to Cairo to reunite with family members for the first time in 20 years.
A roughly equal number of people were entering (or re-entering) Gaza, most of them carrying goods into the territory: washing machines, gas stoves, plastic chairs, foam mats, refrigerators, bicycles with training wheels, and flat screen TVs.
Conspicuously absent, however, was any sign of the humanitarian aid that the United Nations and human rights groups have said Gazans desperately need. Orange Ministry of Health ambulances sporadically entered Egypt en route to Cairo hospitals with sick Palestinians. Three Toyota Rav 4s marked with Red Crescent signs exited Egypt.
Though Egypt is allowing returning Gazans to take what they can carry, it doesn't allow the proper import of goods into Gaza. Not far from this official border crossing, smuggling tunnels dot the countryside – both a vital lifeline for many Gazans and the foundation of new fortunes, as well as an important source of tax revenue for Hamas. Egypt is building a new border fence it says will extend up to 100 feet underground to foil the tunnels.
But while Israel says Gaza's humanitarian travails are exaggerated, UN and other humanitarian aid organizations say living standards have steadily eroded during the blockade, which has been strictly enforced since Hamas won a brief civil war for control of the territory with the rival Fatah party in 2007.
Take healthcare, which Israel's actions today don't address. Israel allows a flow of drugs into the territory, though distribution is often disrupted and temporary shortages occur. But Tony Laurance, head of the World Health Organization's office for the West Bank and Gaza, says that hundreds of pieces of medical equipment have been held up on the Israel side of the border for almost a year, and that's putting lives at risk.
"So far as health services are concerned, what we’re concerned with is the declining quality of care available primarily because of the blockade," he says. Mr. Laurance says many of the "essential tools" of the medical profession are no longer available in Gaza. For instance, Israel bans the import of uninterrupted power supply systems, arguing that their batteries could be used to make bombs. But that means when Gaza's power goes out, as it frequently does, medical equipment stops running, and its shelf-life is reduced by frequent power shortages.
"You’ve got a declining dilapidated infrastructure where nothing of any consequence has been done for the past three years," he says. He points to Gaza's second-largest hospital, where only one of three elevators is working because of a ban on importing spare parts, and where most of the sterilizers for surgical equipment aren't working for the same reason. Though Israel has explained that some of the items on its banned list are because of fear they could be used in weapons, "Very often we aren't given any reason at all."
As Gazans arrived at the border carrying suitcases, they were swarmed by local children hoping to load their bags into taxis in exchange for a few cents. Many of the Palestinians looked well fed and well dressed. One woman, surrounded by her four children, carried some of her belongings in a sack that used to contain grain, bearing the words "Palestine Refugees: For Immediate Distribution."
Some said they were headed for Cairo Airport, others to cities throughout Egypt. When asked if he was on his way to the hospital, an elderly wheelchair-bound man with no teeth answered somewhat indignantly, "no"; he was going to visit family in a village fives minutes away.
The scene at the edge of Egypt, surrounded by peach orchards, is mostly silent. An Israeli observation jet occasionally booms overhead, and five times a day the call to prayer echoes from both Egypt and Gaza. It is easy to imagine what a closed border looks like.
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