RAMALLAH - Red-faced and unusually tongue-tied Israeli officials were forced to try and explain to U.S. Senator John Kerry during his visit to Israel last week why truckloads of pasta waiting to enter the besieged Gaza strip were not considered humanitarian aid while rice was.
Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, visited the coastal territory on a fact-finding mission.
The purpose of the visit was to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground and the level of destruction wrought by Israel's three-week military assault on Gaza, codenamed Operation Cast Lead.
During his visit to Gaza it came to the senator's attention that Israel had prevented a number of trucks loaded with pasta from entering the territory.
UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) officials explained to Kerry that Israel was only permitting limited amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the definition of what the Israelis consider humanitarian was restricted.
"Pasta is not regarded as humanitarian aid and is not allowed in to Gaza while rice is," an UNRWA official told Kerry.
Kerry then questioned Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak directly about the logic of the restriction on pasta. Following his intervention, the truckloads of pasta were eventually permitted to enter Gaza.
Over a hundred aid trucks are currently entering Gaza on a daily basis. This is more than the number of trucks that were permitted entry during the cease-fire with Hamas which lasted nearly five months until Israel launched a cross-border military raid into Gaza on Nov. 4.
However, according to the UN, the overall level of imports remain well below the 475 trucks allowed in daily before Israel's blockade of Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas took control.
Aid organizations say the current number is insufficient to meet the market's needs as well as the shortfall resulting from months of severe restrictions.
The Palestine Trade Center (Paltrade) estimates that in order for any sort of economical revival to begin, exports should resume immediately and a minimum of 850 truckloads of market-triggered imports per day should be allowed entry.
"Although the situation has improved in comparison to several months ago, the amount of aid allowed in is still too little compared to the pre-blockade scenario," said UNRWA spokesman Sammay Mshasha.
"Furthermore, when the delivery of aid is restricted to an argument of pasta vs rice, then the situation becomes a little ridiculous. No security reasons justify a blockade on pasta," Mshasha told IPS.
"Rebuilding Gaza's infrastructure is vital but the Israelis are not allowing glass in to fix shattered windows. No cement or steel is being permitted in either. We have had construction material waiting in warehouses from 22 months ago, long before the war," added Mshasha.
An estimated 15,000 buildings in Gaza were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, causing 50,000 Palestinians to flee their homes and seek emergency shelter. Thousands have no home to return to, while thousands of others returned to homes extensively damaged.
Mike Bailey, a spokesman from Oxfam, which is involved in humanitarian aid and projects aimed at rehabilitating Gaza, said one of the major problems was the goods not getting into Gaza.
"About 80 percent of the aid getting in is food but even there, there are restrictions on stuff such as fruit juice and pasta," Bailey told IPS.
Medicine and medical equipment accounts for another 12 percent of aid getting in, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"However essentials such as clothing, school textbooks, agricultural products including seedlings, fertilizer and piping are banned. The agricultural industry will take time to be rehabilitated, and that is why it is imperative that these items are allowed in," explained Bailey.
Fuel supplies and spare parts for Gaza's sewage and water treatment plants and hospitals have also been severely restricted. This has forced tonnes of untreated sewage to be pumped into the sea on a daily basis thereby threatening Gaza's underground drinking water supply.
Israel has also clamped down on the entrance of NGOs entering Gaza. Of the 178 requests to enter Gaza submitted by International NGOs' staff members and recorded by OCHA during January, only 18 NGO staff were approved as of the end of the month, while no answer was received for the rest.
Two weeks ago, four senior EU officials sent a letter to a number of Israeli government ministers and Yitzhak Herzog, the minister charged with humanitarian aid transfers to the Gaza Strip in particular.
The letter protested the delays in the flow of aid through the crossings into Gaza. The officials also demanded that Israel formulate a clear policy on this issue.
On Wednesday angry U.S. State Department officials lashed out too. The State Department said it normally tried to avoid criticizing Israel in regard to its treatment of the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza. However, it explained that the current crisis on the ground there required the immediate delivery of as many basic supplies as possible.
"Israel is not making enough effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," a senior U.S. official told Israeli counterparts last week. He reiterated Washington's view that the U.S. expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter.
When asked whether the U.S. believed that Israel was holding up humanitarian aid as a tool to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, State Department spokesman Robert Wood answered, "Aid should never be used as a political weapon."
Further criticism came from an unusual quarter when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, renowned for being staunchly pro-Israel, expressed anger at the obstacles Israel was putting in the way of aid delivery.
Political sources in Jerusalem noted that senior Clinton aides have made it clear that the matter will be central to Clinton's planned visit to Israel on Tuesday.
U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who arrived in Israel on Thursday is also expected to issue a sharp commentary on the subject to Israel.
(Inter Press Service)