Blockade Forces Closure of U.N. Food Distribution Program in Gaza
By Linda Gradstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 14, 2008; 9:59 AM
JERUSALEM, Nov. 14 -- The United Nations has shut down a food distribution program that feeds 750,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after U.N. officials said their warehouses were empty and could not be restocked because of an Israeli blockade.
On the tenth day of an Israeli closure of Gaza's borders, the area's main power plant also ran out of fuel, and U.N. and other aid officials warned of mounting problems.
"Tomorrow when 20,000 people show up to get their rations, they will be told they have to wait until we can resupply," John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, said in a telephone interview. "It is unprecedented that the UN is unable to get its supplies in to a population under such obvious distress."
Israeli officials said the closure is a response to ongoing Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into Israel.
That continued today. The military wing of Hamas issued a statement that it had shot five longer-range Soviet-made Grad missiles at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli rescue workers said five rockets landed in Ashkelon but there were no casualties or damage. The Grad has a range of 15 miles. In the past Israel has seen rocket fire on Ashkelon, with its population of 100,000, as an escalation.
Overall at least ten rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel. One scored a direct hit on a house in the southern town of Sderot and five others landed inside the southern city of Ashkelon. One Israeli was slightly wounded.
Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a target in the northern Gaza Strip, according to an army spokesman, wounding two gunmen.
Since November 4, Israeli troops have killed at least 10 Palestinian gunmen in a series of incidents and Palestinians have fired dozens of rockets and mortars at southern Israel. The back and forth has frayed an already fragile five month old cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
The resulting Israeli blockade has disrupted a U.N. program that feeds about half of Gaza's population, said Ging. Food distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency includes flour, oil, rice, sugar and canned meat, and is meant to provide 60 percent of daily caloric needs.
"Many of these families have been subsisting on this ration for years and they are living hand to mouth," Ging said angrily. "This is a disastrous situation and its getting worse and worse. Even during the cease-fire we were prohibited from building up our reserves which could have prevented the current crisis. This is shocking."
European Union External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called on Israel to reopen the crossings in keeping with international law which requires that civilians have access to all essential services such as electricity and clean water.
"I am profoundly concerned about the consequences for the Gazan population of the complete closure of all Gaza crossings for deliveries of fuel and basic humanitarian assistance," she told the Reuters news agency.
She said a group of 20 European parliamentarians were also denied entry into Gaza earlier this week.
Israeli defense ministry spokesman Peter Lerner said Israel had planned to open the border crossings yesterday to allow both fuel for the power plant and food aid to enter Gaza. But Israeli intelligence said Palestinian gunmen planned to attack the border crossing and it remained closed. Lerner also rejected Ging's criticism of Israel.
"Instead of blaming Israel, they should be blaming Hamas," he said. "We hope the Palestinains will stop firing rockets and we can get the crossings opened again."
Foreign journalists based in Israel have not been allowed to enter Gaza for the past ten days. The Foreign Press Association has complained to the Israeli government that coverage of Gaza is an essential part of covering the region, but Lerner said no change is expected in the next few days.
"There's no lack of media coverage and we've seen many stories coming out of Gaza in the last week," he said. "Hamas has full responsibility for what is going on in Gaza."
Most of Gaza City has been dark since last night when Gaza's main power plant, which supplies a third of the area's electricity, shut down after it ran out of fuel.
Awani Sawafiri, a 37-old-taxi driver and father of three young children, said the blackout began around 6 p.m. last night. The electricity went back on for a few hours in the middle of the night but went off again at 8 a.m. He said there is also no cooking gas available in Gaza.
"When I look around it looks as though people have gone back in time," he said. "With no electricity more and more people are burning wood to make a fire to cook. The situation is very bad."
What he does have is gas for his taxi, which is being smuggled in from the Egyptian border through underground tunnels. But with the economic situation so dismal, there are few customers and he's not making any money.
Hana Bardawi, who lives in the Shati refugee camp with her seven children, says she is completely dependent on the U.N. aid. Her husband, who is ill, does not work .
"If the U.N. assistance stops, I will have to take my two oldest sons out of university, because I won't be able to afford it," she said. "Now with winter coming we also need jackets and warm clothes for the children."
Palestinian parliament member Jamal Khodari said that 80 percent of Gazans live under the poverty line and the average annual income per capita is two dollars a day.
"This is an illegal collective punishment, he said. "There is a shortage of medicines in the hospitals and the cutting of electricity is further pushing the situation deeper toward a crisis."
Ahmed Abu Hamda, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, said the Israeli closure was the main talk of Palestinians at Friday prayer in the mosques.
"People just feel hopeless, we don't see any solution to this situation," he said in a telephone interview. "They say, 'what the hell is going on here, I just want to live.'"