Before Israel imposed a goods blockade in 2007, about 600 lorries passed into Gaza each day. Now, barely 100 enter via only one crossing point.
The gates that keep Gaza hungry
KEREM SHALOM, ISRAEL // Pallets loaded with cream biscuits, soya bean oil, surgical gloves, dates, apples and peaches sit on a dusty stretch of desert encircled by high, grey concrete walls. Transported into a walled compound by Israeli lorry drivers, they are then picked up by a Palestinian crew on the other side of the border and taken into Gaza. Never are the Palestinian and Israeli teams in the same space at the same time.
This is how things are at Kerem Shalom, currently the only goods crossing from Israel into the Gaza Strip. Food and humanitarian supplies are delivered by a team of about 70 workers, both Israeli and Palestinian, under the control of the Israeli ministry of defence. Some 600 lorries used to pass between Israel and the Gaza Strip each day, shuttling goods into the Palestinian enclave and exports - furniture, footwear, fruit and flowers - for trade into Israel.
But now, Kerem Shalom, on the southern tip of the border with Gaza, is dealing with one-way traffic and delivers only about 100 lorry-loads into the strip each day. "We won't allow a humanitarian crisis to develop in Gaza, but we won't accept responsibility for anything else," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli ministry of defence. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in early 2006 and then seized control of Gaza a year later, the Israeli government imposed a goods blockade on the strip, letting in only the bare minimum in food and aid.
"There are thousands upon thousands of things that are not allowed into Gaza," said Adnan abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, the largest aid organisation working there. "We are talking about things like cement, building materials, clothes, shoes, car parts - it's an unbelievable situation," he said. Always stifling, the goods restrictions have been more desperately felt following Israel's three-week assault on the Gaza Strip at the turn of this year.
The attack exacted a heavy price: more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, thousands more injured and homes, hospitals, schools and infrastructure were destroyed. Four months later, and despite the billions of dollars pledged in international aid, there is little evidence of essential rebuilding or rehabilitation work. "We are still waiting for Israel to allow building materials," said Mr abu Hasna. "These are the cornerstone of the Palestinian economy, which has been completely destroyed."
Israel said that such materials were banned entry to the strip out of concern that they might be used to build not homes, but Hamas bunkers and rockets. Israel arranges the passage of supplies into the Strip with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, not with Hamas. Aid agencies say they struggle to make sense of what can and cannot get through to Gaza. "Every product has a different procedure and it is difficult to say why," said one aid worker. "Sometimes the process is logical, but other times it seems too elaborate."
The Logistics Cluster, the co-ordination body for the 28 international aid organisations that work in Gaza, reports that it has only just received approval for baby toys and toothbrushes. Prayer mats have not been cleared to enter the Palestinian Strip, while crayons, balloons and skipping ropes have been delayed since the start of April. A few months ago, the international press was filled with reports of pasta being prohibited, but Israeli officials have recently removed it from the no-go list. Now, aid organisations are still waiting for wheelchairs, radio antennas and medical equipment to be cleared.
As a result of the blockade, which is also imposed by Egypt on its border with Gaza, smuggling is a part of the goods economy in the Palestinian Strip. Food, fuel, clothes and livestock come through a series of tunnels on the Egyptian border - as well as weapons, according to Israeli officials who, along with Egyptian officials, regularly try to clamp down on these tunnels. Smugglers also try to get goods past the security checks and the giant scanning machine at the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
"We stopped 1,200 Hamas uniforms a few months ago," said Ami, 49, operations manager at the Kerem Shalom crossing. "We've also stopped night-vision goggles, pipes ? sometimes they try to smuggle chocolate or chewing gum, or hide white cement in containers of flour, or machine oil in bottles of shampoo. We know how to check for these things, I can't tell you how." The contraband products find a way on to the pallets of goods bound for Gaza from Israel, the Palestinian West Bank or Jordan. Lorry drivers might have been bribed, said Ami, or they might be unaware of what they are carrying to the crossing.
"[The smugglers] test us each day; it's a game of wits we play," he said. "I have a list of the things I am allowed to bring into Gaza and beyond that nothing gets through. That is the policy of my government." For Ami, the main challenge is to keep his crew safe at a crossing that is often under rocket attack from the Gaza Strip. The Kerem Shalom facility was destroyed by a suicide bomb last year, and rebuilt several hundred metres away from the border with Gaza. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was kidnapped from this same crossing in 2006 and has been held captive since.
"Gaza has to receive these supplies, but at the same time my workers have to go home safely every day," said Ami, adding that even though they are part of the same unit, the Israeli crew conducts security searches on the Palestinian staff coming from Gaza each day. "We are professional, it is nothing personal," he said. "I admire what the Palestinian workers do. They take a risk just like us in this abnormal situation here."
The Palestinian side is run by Gazan businessmen. The Israeli government roundly blames Hamas for the limited flow of supplies into the Gaza Strip. "If Hamas wants to change the situation in Gaza, it can do so easily by recognising the conditions set by Israel, the US and the EU," said the defence ministry spokesman. These conditions, demanded of Hamas since it came to power in 2006, are that it recognise Israel, renounces violence and abide by pre-existing agreements between Israelis and Palestinians.
But aid organisations urge that politics be taken out of getting goods into Gaza. "Without opening the borders completely and allowing Gazans to import and export, things will deteriorate and we will face a horrible situation in the future," said Abu Hasna, the UNRWA spokesman. "The most important issue is that there is no horizon," he said. "Gazans have aid organisations feeding them, but they have no hope, no future - there is no tomorrow."
* The National