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.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has complained about two separate incidents in which ambulance crews were fired upon, even after Red Cross officials had secured permission from the Israeli military to travel specific routes. The Red Cross also issued a rare public statement Thursday from its headquarters in Geneva, blaming Israel for "unacceptable" delays in allowing rescue missions.
Antoine Grand, head of Red Cross operations in Gaza, said he is careful not to send his ambulance crews into active combat zones. But he said he has become increasingly frustrated at how long it takes to obtain clearance from the Israeli military to go anywhere.
"They say, 'The green light is pending, the green light is pending,' but it can take days," he said. "In the meantime, people have died because of a lack of medical care."
Other groups have experienced similar obstacles. Doctors Without Borders, a Geneva-based organization, said Monday it had been waiting three days for permission to send a crew of physicians and medical supplies into Gaza.
"We're more than frustrated, of course, because we know there's a huge need for surgical services," said Franck Joncret, the group's head of mission in Jerusalem.
Aid officials said problems persist even when they're allowed to work. On Friday, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency suspended deliveries into Gaza to protest the attacks on its drivers. The Red Cross also curtailed some operations within the Gaza Strip, saying it no longer had confidence that its crews would be safe from Israeli soldiers.
The disputes spurred meetings between senior U.N. and Israeli officials. In response, Israel opened the Tel Aviv center to coordinate communications with aid groups.
Lerner, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said Israel was not deliberately trying to hamper the efforts of aid groups. "The problems in the beginning can be attributed to the fact that it was an ongoing military operation," he said.
Among many Israelis, however, there is lingering distrust about the relief organizations' goals. In a column in the Wall Street Journal last week, Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli deputy prime minister, criticized the United Nations for sustaining Palestinian refugee camps that have existed in Gaza for decades. "For the rest of the world's refugees, the U.N. works tirelessly to improve their conditions, to relocate them, and to help them rebuild their lives as quickly as possible," Sharansky wrote. "With the Palestinians, the U.N. does exactly the opposite."
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency was founded in 1949 to assist Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Originally intended as a temporary program, its charter has been extended repeatedly by the United Nations. The agency today provides food, education, health care and other social services to 4.6 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.
Many Israelis harbor widespread doubts about the United Nations in general. Last month, Israel barred Richard Falk, a U.N. special envoy for Palestinian human rights, from entering the country, saying he was biased against Israel. Israeli officials also bristled at a vote Monday by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate what it called "massive violations" of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli military in Gaza.
Aid officials said they've had better luck in getting their supply convoys past Israeli checkpoints in recent days. But they said they're still unable to distribute more than a fraction of the food, medicine and other items needed in Gaza.
And with reports that Israel is weighing an expansion of its ground operations, concerns are high that conditions in Gaza will deteriorate before they improve.
"The main fear we have is that the risks to civilians will get worse and that our own staff will be put in further danger," said Filippo Grandi, the deputy commissioner-general for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. "Neither side seems to be giving signals that they will stop fighting."