Isolation deepens, supplies insufficient

The trucks are there, piled high with foreign foodstuffs. There’s a grinding of gears, dust, hand signals and a man with a clipboard, waving load after load through the heavy frontier gate.But there the similarities end between the border crossing from Israel to the Gaza Strip and your typical international freight transit station. Spot the Israeli tanks. And the curious absence of anyone visible on the Palestinian side of the fence. Two weeks after Islamist Hamas seized control of Gaza and were banished from the Palestinian government, the enclave’s isolation has deepened, its main passenger and freight terminals are firmly shut and some supplies are dwindling on the shelves.

Yet some vital stocks are getting through, in novel ways — including dropping flour, cooking oil, sugar and other produce in fenced-off, guarded fields for Palestinians to retrieve once Israeli truckers have left or, in the latest case, piling wheat on a cross-border conveyer belt intended for shipping gravel. It is not enough, UN officials say, warning of a looming “humanitarian crisis”. The Israeli army says it’s doing what it can while facing attack from bombs and mortars on the frontier.

Israeli troops manning a land, sea and air cordon around the 45km strip of Mediterranean coast have orders not to speak to Hamas members, whose group seeks to defeat Israel.

“Now there is nobody on the Palestinian side who is trying to coordinate with us. We are not talking with Hamas,” said Colonel Nir Press, who runs frontier posts on the Israeli side.

“We’re waiting until someone comes to us and coordinates,” Press added, saying most of those who worked on the Gaza side were from Hamas’ rival faction and are no longer in contact. That had forced the closure of the complex, major crossing points at Erez, for people, and the Karni freight terminal.

Egypt has also closed its crossing with Gaza, at Rafah.

 

Crisis

However, aid groups, private merchants and the military are coming up with what Press calls “creative solutions” to ensuring the 1.5 million Gazans do not starve for the time being.

“We’re very pleased with the initiative that the army has shown,” said UN spokesman Christopher Gunness.

But the United Nations and other aid groups say Gaza, from which Israel pulled out two years ago, does face grave economic problems in time if its meagre trade outlets remain sealed. They want Karni, which can handle 300 trucks a day, reopened quickly.

“There aren’t enough supplies going into Gaza to stave off a humanitarian crisis,” Gunness said on Friday, estimating only about half of a required 175 truckloads were getting across.

For its part, the Israeli army says it is limited by attacks on its efforts. A previously little used crossing at Kerem Shalom, in the south, now handles 20 or more trucks a day — but was closed on Monday after a bomb was planted there overnight.

“You open Kerem Shalom for the people and what do they send us? They send us bombs,” Press said at the crossing on Wednesday — shortly after mortars also hit close to his own office.

“If someone wants a humanitarian crisis, it’s up to them not us,” he added. “We’re really trying to help the people in Gaza.” At Kerem Shalom, Israeli trucks are offloaded onto secure shuttle vehicles that ferry them over the border to be picked up by Palestinian merchants. No Palestinian officials are involved.

At another of the improvised operations on Wednesday, the Sufa crossing, 79 Israeli trucks were moving in a dusty roar through the frontier fence into a sealed off field guarded by troops. Once they had left their loads, the Israelis would pull back, close the gate and trucks from Gaza would move in.

 

Flowers

Among supplies were two refrigerated trucks of carnation plants — by autumn, growers will hope to export the flowers.

On Thursday, another element was added with a shipment of 500 tonnes of wheat along a 200-metre cross-border conveyer belt near the Karni terminal. It was previously used to move gravel.

That operation, the Israeli military said, required contact with Palestinian “contractors” on the Gaza side. A senior Hamas security official in Gaza City told Reuters that Hamas was ready to work to restore trade and traffic — including, if Israel wished, having non-Hamas border officials get back to work.

Such partners will be necessary, Press said, if Israel is to reopen fully the complex operations at Karni and Erez.

Movement of people out of Gaza has virtually halted after Israel let a few hundred leave just after the Hamas takeover.

At Erez, where a new facility could screen thousands of travellers a day entering Israel, only a handful of needy cases went through on Thursday with the help of the Red Cross — among them a boy of about eight, his hips and legs frozen in plaster.

Israeli armoured bulldozers have flattened all the structures previously used by Palestinian police on the Gaza side of that crossing, depriving hostile gunmen of cover. Hamas fighters wait down the road, out of sight of Israelis, checking cars.

For now, most Gazans are mainly concerned about food. Many depend heavily on food aid. Shops are still active though some prices have risen as those who can buy up stocks. The price of flour rose by a third in June, the World Food Programme says.

“Everyone is doing their best to get things through,” WFP spokeswoman Kirstie Campbell said. “It’s like a band-aid. We hope to create some space to work for a long-term solution.”

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