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Israel Chokes Gaza Despite Announced Easing

by Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH - Israel has received international praise for its decision to ease its crippling blockade on Gaza following the country's deadly assault on a humanitarian flotilla trying to bring desperately needed humanitarian aid to the coastal territory. But according to the UN and human rights organizations, the easing of the blockade is insufficient in meeting Gaza's needs.

Palestinian women paint ships on a wall to show support for attempts to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza, at the sea port in Gaza City, Thursday, July 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) "Even if the blockade is eased it remains illegal under international law as it is a collective form of punishment on a civilian population," Chris Gunness from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) told IPS.

"Eighty percent of Gaza's population is aid-dependent. Allowing more aid in is perpetuating this dependency and not addressing the issue of self- sufficiency or the root causes of the crisis," added Gunness.

Israeli commandos shot dead nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the flotilla boats, when they raided it in international waters at the end of May. The killings sparked international outrage but also drew global attention to the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza as a result of Israel's, and to a lesser degree Egypt's, hermetic sealing of the territory.

Following international pressure Israel decided to ease the closure. Towards the end of June the government of Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu issued a six-point plan to facilitate increased access for civilian goods entering Gaza and to expand economic activity, reports the Israeli human rights organization Gisha.

The plan stated that all commercial products -- other than a list of banned dual-purpose goods -- would be permitted entry to the strip; 250 daily truckloads of goods would enter; the entrance of construction materials would be better facilitated; and the movement of humanitarian cases and international NGOs would be streamlined.

Gisha reports that there has been a moderate rise in the volume of trucks entering Gaza and an increase in imports of consumer goods, but that this volume still falls way below pre-embargo days, and isn't sufficient to meet the daily needs of Gaza's 1.5 million civilians.

During the week after Jun. 20, 695 trucks of goods entered Gaza. This compares with 2,400 per week prior to the closure, and meets only 30 percent of Palestinian needs. Over the past three years 2,328 trucks entered Gaza on a monthly basis compared with 10,400 trucks monthly prior to the blockade.

Additionally, items which could be used for industry and manufacturing and which present no security threat are still being restricted. There appears to be "no change in the policy of inflicting economic warfare or by preventing entry of goods necessary for production," says the Gisha report. "Textiles, industrial-sized buckets of margarine, glucose, packaging boxes and other raw materials are still banned.

"Permitting mayonnaise and potato chips into Gaza is really irrelevant in dealing with the underlying issues," says Maxwell Gaylard, UN Deputy Special and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Middle East.

"What we need to see is an improvement in Gaza's water, sanitation, power grid, educational and health sectors. Gaza's economy is shot to pieces and its infrastructure is extremely fragile," Gaylard told IPS.

"What have not been addressed by the easing of the closure are the issues of exports as well as the limited number of crossings open to facilitate the flow of goods," said Gunness.

A major step towards helping to rehabilitate Gaza's economy would be permitting exports on which Gaza's economy is heavily reliant. A 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005, agreed to 400 daily truckloads of exports. In the last three years 295 export trucks have exited Gaza.

Gisha reports that "critical manufacturing sectors such as furniture, clothing and textile, and food production are dependent upon revenues acquired by selling their goods outside the strip."

The near collapse of these industries has been aggravated by restrictions on Gaza's banking ties with the outside world, making the legal transfer of money almost impossible.

These industries have been further decimated by the ban on the entrance of raw materials and spare parts.

"Operation Cast Lead destroyed at least 60,000 homes and structures which need to be urgently repaired and rebuilt. The easing of the blockade is not addressing this adequately," Gunness told IPS.

One of the biggest humanitarian issues remains the continued restrictions on movement, including Gazans trying to leave for medical treatment, to continue their studies, or to visit family in the West Bank.

In 2000, 26,000 Palestinian laborers traveled to Israel on a daily basis to earn a living and support large families. Revenue from Israel provided a major boost to Gaza's economy. In the last few weeks a daily average of 95 people have been permitted to pass through Gaza's Erez crossing into Israel. Students wishing to pursue their studies in the West Bank have been repeatedly turned back.

Twenty-nine-year-old Fatma Sharif, a lawyer with the Gaza human rights organization Al-Mezan which is strongly critical of Hamas, had her application to enter the West Bank to study for her masters degree at Birzeit University near Ramallah turned down by Israel's High Court of Justice.

The decision of the judges was not based on Sharif being a security threat but rather that her application did not meet Israel's guidelines on travel restrictions imposed on Gaza's residents under the blockades. 

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