Rights groups decry restrictions on Gaza trade

Embargoed humous from Strip is Israeli "blockade" in a tin can, Oxfam spokesman says.

mike bailey with humous 248.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
mike bailey with humous 248.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
A can of humous from Gaza is a rarity anywhere in the world, Oxfam spokesman Mike Bailey said as he added his voice to a group of 36 aid organizations, who along with the UN on Wednesday protested Israel's two-year-old "blockade" of the Strip. "I was in Gaza," Bailey said at a press conference which was symbolically held in a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warehouse in Jerusalem that supplies Palestinian refugees. As he held up a small can of humous from Gaza, he added, "I brought you something that only someone with an international passport can carry out." The richest person in the world "can buy caviar, but not humous with tehina from Gaza, because it is not allowed out," he said. Israeli restrictions on Gazan exports prevent the factory that produced the can, the only such producer in the Strip, from sending its output to the West Bank, which until June 2007 accounted for 40 percent of its business. Nor can the factory continue to function in Gaza, because the cans needed to package the humous and tehina are not allowed into the Strip from Israel, where they are produced, Bailey said. As a result of these restrictions, the factory closed down 18 months ago, Bailey said. "This is collective punishment in a tin can," he said. "Let us stop this collective punishment and open up Gaza." None of the speakers at the press conference addressed the reasons that caused Israel to close the Strip's borders, including Hamas's coup in Gaza in June 2007 and Hamas's failure to release captive soldier Gilad Schalit. In a press release it distributed, however, it called on Hamas to halt its rocket fire against Israel. At the press conference, those who spoke focused on the hardships caused to the 1.4 million Gazans by Israel's policy of only allowing humanitarian supplies into the area. Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, held up a two-for-one bottle with both shampoo and conditioner in it, as he explained that while shampoo was allowed in, conditioner was prohibited. More urgently needed was building material to repair the damage from Israel's military incursion into Gaza in January, Gunness said. "Today, Gaza faces a crisis of reconstruction which is having a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people. In the recent fighting, 52,400 homes were damaged or destroyed, impacting a quarter of a million people," he said. He added that 10 schools were completely destroyed and more than 200 were damaged, and that more than 40 public health clinics were damaged or destroyed. UNRWA needed more than $400,000 million to repair the damage, he said. In a nod to Israel, Gunness noted there was good daily coordination between his organization and the Office of the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, and that basic food supplies were allowed in. But he and Oxfam said the Office of the Coordinator continued to limit the range of food coming into Gaza. In a statement released to the press at the conference, the aid organizations said "the amount of goods allowed into Gaza under the blockade is one quarter of the pre-blockade flow. Eight out of every 10 truckloads contain food, but even that is restricted to a mere 18 food items. "Seedlings and calves are not allowed, so Gaza's farmers cannot make up the nutritional shortfall. Even clothes and shoes, toys and school books are routinely prohibited," said the release. It called on Israel to open the crossings to maximum capacity, particularly the Karni crossing, and "for a return to normalized trade" to alleviate unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty. The Office of the Coordinator said in response that it allowed in humanitarian assistance including a broad range of food, medicine, toiletries and agricultural products, but it did not allow in goods such as construction materials, which could aid Hamas. It added that while most food items were allowed in, some luxury items were restricted.