IDF to step up flow of humanitarian aid

More crossings to be opened; EU aid chief says Israel does not respect international law.

January 13, 2009 23:37

survey_gaza_media_war. (photo credit: )

The IDF plans to open more crossing points into Gaza starting on Wednesday, in an effort to vastly increase aid to the civilian population. Until now, food, medical supplies and animal feed have mostly gone in through Kerem Shalom, which was designed as a minor crossing point. The IDF now hopes to open the grain chute at the Karni crossing, a major passage way for goods, to allow for the transport of items such as corn, wheat and animal feed, according to Maj. Peter Lerner, the spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories. Kerem Shalom's limited capacity had made it particularly difficult to supply enough wheat to provide bread for Gaza. Many of the bakeries in the Strip are closed and there are long lines at those that are open. On Monday, the IDF opened the chute at Karni for a test run during which 23 truckloads of grain were sent into Gaza, according to Lerner. It was shut on Tuesday, however, after the army found a tunnel on the Gaza side, meant to be used for a mine attack. On Wednesday the IDF hopes to open the chute for the passage of 60 truckloads of grain. After that, Lerner said, the IDF wants to operate Karni every day. It has also begun pumping fuel through Kerem Shalom, so that it can serve as an alternative to Nahal Oz, which is often closed for security reasons. In addition, Lerner said, the IDF plans to open Erez for cargo on Wednesday. Until now, Erez has been used only for emergency medical cases. If all goes as planned, 180 truckloads of humanitarian assistance should enter Gaza on Wednesday, compared with 106 on Tuesday. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has called on the IDF to open Karni for grain; its chute was closed at the end of December when Operation Cast Lead began. UNRWA normally provides 800,000 of the 1.4 million Gazans with basic food supplies. "We are getting a lot of help from the Israeli Defense Forces on the one crossing that's open [Kerem Shalom] to get more and more trucks in, but it's just not enough," UNWRA Commissioner Karen Abu Zayd said during a visit to Norway. Norway chairs the agency's advisory committee, and coordinates international donor country efforts for the Palestinians. Abu Zayd said the people of Gaza lacked everything and that many, including her own staff, were burning furniture to cook and stay warm. "They don't have food. They don't have water, electricity, heat. There is no cash in Gaza. So even if they have means they can't go out and buy anything," she said. "So people are spending long hours in the cold and the dark just waiting and trying to get food in the those three hours a day where there is a lull." She said a cease-fire would allow aid and staff members already available to reach the people of Gaza. But Abu Zayd also said UNWRA needed $100 million in additional funding. After meeting with Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere in Oslo, Abu Zayd said she feared Israel might be allowing more aid in now as a prelude to a new phase of the offensive: house-to-house fighting in Gaza City and other towns. Separately, the European Union's aid chief blasted Israel's military action in Gaza. "It is evident that Israel does not respect international humanitarian law," EUaid commissioner Louis Michel said. Michel said his remark was based on expert accounts, the number of civilian casualties and the difficulty of getting humanitarian aid to the needy. He told Belgium's La Libre newspaper that Israel's actions were all the more difficult to accept because they come from a democracy. But as he stood at the Kerem Shalom crossing on Tuesday morning, Daly Belgasmi, who heads the regional bureau of the UN's World Food Program that provides assistance to 265,000 Gazans, had more positive things to say about Israel and the Kerem Shalom operation. Behind him, a line of trucks waited at the gate to Kerem Shalom to unload their cargo. "This is a life-line operation for us," Belgasmi said. Once the goods got into Gaza, IDF operations made it difficult to safely distribute them, he said. As he spoke, a column of grey smoke curled into the sky from Gaza. The IDF has ceased fire for a three-hour daily window to allow for aid distribution inside the Strip, but aid organizations argue this is insufficient to allow them to reach all the people in need. Since Operation Cast Lead started 18 days ago, the World Food Program has only been able to distribute food to 90,000 people at a time, when the need for basic assistance in Gaza has grown, said Belgasmi, who was in Israel briefly on Tuesday to assess the situation on the ground. The World Food Program needs to bring the number of people dependent on its programs to 365,000, he said. The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that many basic items are in scarce supply, including food for infants, fruits, vegetables, wheat, cooking gas, fuel, clean water, electricity and cash. Still, at Kerem Shalom the IDF is proud of the work it has already done, sometimes at great risk, to provide food for the people in Gaza, in an odd cooperative movement with Palestinians who are not affiliated with Hamas. On the border, within eye sight of the fighting, only a thin white metal gate and a wall of concrete boulders separates the Gazans and the Israelis who labor daily in the midst of a battle to bring humanitarian supplies into the Strip. "You have workers here day after day [on each side] and they have never met each other," said Maj. David Baruch, as he stood Tuesday morning in the concrete lot at Kerem Shalom. As Baruch spoke, trucks loaded with animal feed, sunflower oil and tomato sauce pulled into the lot. Using small forklifts, workers unloaded the boxes and bags and stacked them on the pavement. Once Lot A, which is flanked by two walls of concrete slabs, is filled, the white gate on the Israeli side will close and the identical one of the Palestinian side will open, said Baruch. Palestinians will then load the supplies into their trucks and drive into Gaza. In Lot B, on the other side of the concrete wall, Gazans are already loading trucks. "They are loading and we are unloading," he said. Once they finished, Israeli trucks will pull in and unload more wares, Baruch said. Workers at the crossing have to be wary because there have been attempts to smuggle in suspicious material amidst packages provided by private companies, said Baruch. There has not been a problem with UN trucks, he said. By only yesterday they found closed circuit televisions with night vision that could be used to help Hamas gunmen holed up in a bunker see up to one kilometer in the darkness, Baruch said. Nor is this a risk free operation, he said. Hamas has been known to shoot mortars over the wall. Should there be an attack, he suggested that it would be wise to seek safety in the white concrete room at the edge of the lot. "On one hand, we want to let the aid in, but it is a difficult situation when they start lobbing mortars at us," he said. AP contributed to this report.

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