Generators, flashlights and urinals: The Gaza aid blocked by Israel on the grounds that it must not reach Hamas

Despite the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave, NGOs say supplies have slowed down to a trickle due to bureaucratic obstacles, grueling inspections and arbitrary entry criteria

Israel-Hamas War
Palestinian children wait to receive food made at a charity kitchen amid food shortages, in Rafah, Feb. 16.Associated Press/LaPresse (APN)
Marc Español

Oxygen cylinders, generators, medical supplies and hundreds of water purifiers and solar-powered objects. The list of essential items that Israeli authorities have refused to allow into Gaza since the start of the war, citing security reasons, is long. And it highlights the severe restrictions and difficulties humanitarian agencies face in getting vital supplies to a population trapped in increasingly desperate conditions.

More than four months after the start of the Israeli ground invasion, aid is still only arriving in Gaza in a trickle — only a fraction of what the population needs is getting through. The main reason for this, according to NGOs, human rights organizations and officials who spoke to EL PAÍS, is that sending aid to Gaza is up against a very restricted, slow and confusing process imposed by Israel. This includes bureaucratic obstacles, limits on entry points, grueling inspections, arbitrary and inconsistent criteria for what items can pass, and lack of guarantees regarding the distribution of the aid once it is inside the Palestinian enclave.

“Humanitarian aid [is used] as a weapon of war: not only has the infrastructure necessary for life [in Gaza] been destroyed, but the obstruction of aid is one more element of this war by the Israeli army,” says Spanish MEP Soraya Rodriguez, who visited the Egypt-Gaza border in December with other European lawmakers to follow humanitarian aid delivery operations.

A total of 75% of Gaza’s population, some 1.7 million people, have been displaced by Israel’s attacks and successive evacuation orders. Most are living in overcrowded conditions in Rafah, a city at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt, which is in the grips of a deep humanitarian crisis. There is an acute shortage of water, food, medicine and shelter. The risk of famine is looming. And critical infrastructure has been destroyed.

Despite the immense needs of the Gaza population, Israel only allows aid to reach Gaza through two border crossings: Rafah, which connects with Egypt and is the main route, and Kerem Shalom, which links to Israel. Aid began flowing through Rafah in late October, after Israeli imposed a two-week complete blockade. In December, Israel partially reopened Kerem Shalom — Karem Abu Salem, in Arabic — after coming under strong diplomatic pressure.

Before it can enter Gaza, however, the aid being carried by humanitarian trucks has to be inspected in Israel. This forces convoys entering via Rafah to take a 25-mile detour to the south, to a border post between Egypt and Israel, which — along with Kerem Shalom — is the only point where controls are carried out. What’s more, if Israeli authorities reject a single item, the truck has to return to Egypt, drop off the entire load, reload the aid and repeat the process, says Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. Most days there are drones flying over the area. “Every delay means we are delaying vital aid,” says Ahmed Bayram, an adviser to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Goods for civil and military use

Israel’s truck inspection policy precedes the military offensive in Gaza, and targets items that are defined dual-use, that is, civilian goods that could be used for military purposes. A spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli Ministry of Defense unit in charge of coordinating civil affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, tells EL PAÍS that Israel does not limit aid to Gaza that includes food, water, medicine, medical equipment and shelter supplies. The spokesperson also states that there have been no changes to the dual-use goods policy, set down in a 2007 law, since the start of the military campaign. “We have to ensure that all humanitarian aid convoys that enter Gaza do so with humanitarian aid, not military aid,” says Kobi Michael, the former head of the Palestinian desk at the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Human rights groups, however, point out that Israel’s dual-use criteria are very broad and do not meet international standards. Israel does not provide NGOs with a detailed list of what items are not allowed, which leaves the process open to arbitrary decisions, especially in the context of the current crisis. “There is not much transparency, even less than before, so we do not know exactly what Israel’s policy is at the moment,” says Tania Hary, director of Gisha, an Israeli organization that defends freedom of movement in the occupied territories.

Among the goods that have been blocked are water purifiers, medical supplies, solar-powered items and oxygen pumps, according to a December list from the Egyptian Red Crescent consulted by EL PAÍS. Other news reports have listed sleeping bags, fire hoses, powdered drinks, flashlights, stretchers and urinals. “There are many things,” says Alrifai.

Another obstacle is that Rafah is not a goods crossing and is not fit for a large humanitarian operation. The Kerem Shalom crossing was the main entry route for aid and commercial goods before October. But the Israeli authorities close it for half of Friday and Saturday, and two or three times a week they use it for other purposes, such as returning prisoners and on one occasion returning bodies, says Alrifai. The crossing has also been repeatedly blocked by Israeli protests, who are against any aid to Gaza. “Although it is said that Kerem Shalom is officially open for humanitarian trucks, in reality we cannot use it every day, and we continue to depend almost entirely on Rafah,” explains Alrifai.

Since the reopening of Kerem Shalom, there has not been one week when the daily average of humanitarian trucks entering Gaza, including through Rafah, has exceeded 156, according to the tally from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The maximum number that has crossed in seven days is less than 1,100. Before the military offensive in Gaza, an average of 500 trucks entered every working day.

No guarantees inside

Trucks entering Gaza through Rafah unload their cargo at the Palestinian terminal at the crossing, and the aid is loaded onto other trucks already inside the territory. Then begins the challenge of distributing humanitarian supplies in Gaza, whose critical infrastructure — including roads and communications — have been destroyed by Israel’s attacks. Convoys cannot move freely, but depend on the approval of the Israeli army.

From the beginning of the year until mid-February, Israeli authorities fully or partially facilitated less than 20% of the 77 humanitarian missions to northern Gaza, with support to hospitals and water, hygiene and sanitation service facilities among the most regularly denied, according to OCHA. In the case of missions that required coordination with the Israeli army in the south of Gaza, 58% of mission were facilitated. OCHA also noted that Israel has not accepted any requests to open military checkpoints inside Gaza earlier to expedite aid distribution.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) paused deliveries of vital food aid to northern Gaza on Monday after a convoy was met with “chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order” in Gaza. Israeli forces have also opened fire on U.N. humanitarian convoys and Gazans waiting to receive aid, according to human rights organizations.

Now, Israel’s plans to extend its ground invasion of Rafah threaten to wipe out even the limited humanitarian aid that is available. UNRWA may also have to suspend its operations in Gaza due to lack of resources after multiple Western donors cut funding in response to Israel’s accusation — so far lacking public evidence — that some 40 workers of the agency’s 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the Hamas attack on Israel.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, warned that preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid may constitute a crime. He stressed that Israel must guarantee that Gazans receive food, water and medical supplies.

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