Israel, Aid Groups Have Long Feuded

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

JERUSALEM -- The humanitarian disaster in Gaza -- hundreds of dead civilians, overflowing shelters, an acute shortage of anything to eat -- stems in part from a long-running feud between aid groups and Israel that has worsened since the war began, according to interviews with Israeli officials and international aid workers.

Relief agencies have complained that their stockpiles of food, fuel and medicine in the Gaza Strip were scarce even before the war started Dec. 27 because of Israel's 18-month economic blockade of the territory. Agency officials said their attempts to deliver supplies since then have been delayed repeatedly by Israeli officials who are reluctant to open border crossings, even for emergency shipments.

"Sadly, this was entirely predictable, and in fact, we did predict it," said John Ging, head of Gaza operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides food for 750,000 Palestinians there, roughly half the population.

Ging said the agency normally stores two months' worth of food and six months of medicine in its Gaza warehouses. But because of the Israeli blockade, the warehouses were nearly empty before the fighting started. "We had simply no reserves," he said. "We were at our wits' end to highlight just how precarious the situation was."

Military officials said they set up a special operations center in Tel Aviv on Saturday to improve coordination with aid groups in response to concerns that emergency supplies weren't getting through. They have blamed Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups for the blockade, saying it was necessary to force them to stop firing rockets into southern Israel.

Israel imposed the blockade when Hamas took exclusive control of Gaza in June 2007 after routing forces loyal to Fatah, a rival Palestinian party that favors peace negotiations with Israel. Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, rejects Israel's right to exist.

"We're doing everything we can to address humanitarian needs," said Maj. Peter Lerner, a Defense Ministry spokesman. Last week, the Israeli military also began a practice of ceasing combat operations for three hours each day, in part to allow relief workers to move around more freely.

Many Israeli officials, however, have long nurtured suspicions that U.N. agencies and other aid groups, which are supposed to be politically neutral, favor the Palestinian cause.

They say the organizations are quick to accuse Israel of mistreating Gazans but slow to criticize Hamas for targeting Israeli civilians. They also argue that Hamas draws little scrutiny for tactics that place noncombatant Palestinians in harm's way.

"It reinforces the Israeli sense that the U.N. and the international system is extremely biased," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and executive director of NGO Monitor, a blog dedicated to tracking activities of nongovernmental aid organizations in Israel.

Representatives of the United Nations and aid organizations counter that they do not favor one side or the other in the conflict, but tensions peaked last week when U.N. officials accused the Israeli military of fatally shooting a driver in a humanitarian-aid convoy and firing at two other U.N. employees in Gaza. The United Nations also lodged protests after an Israeli mortar struck a U.N. school serving as an emergency shelter.

The Israeli military has denied involvement in the fatal shooting of the U.N. driver. Military officials said they did not intentionally target any of the aid workers or the school, but have offered different accounts in recent days of what happened.

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