/ 25 April 2008

UN forced to halt Gaza food aid

The United Nations was forced to halt food handouts for up to 800 000 Palestinians last week because of a severe fuel shortage in Gaza brought on by an Israeli economic blockade.

John Ging, the director of operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugees, said there had been a ”totally inadequate” supply of fuel from Israel to Gaza for 10 months until it was finally halted three weeks ago. ”The devastating humanitarian impact is entirely predictable,” he said.

A shortage of diesel and petrol meant UN food assistance to 650 000 Palestinian refugees would stop last Thursday and aid from the World Food Programme for another 127 000 Palestinians due in the coming days would also be halted.

”The collective punishment of the population of Gaza, which has been instituted for months now, has failed,” said Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East.

Gaza’s streets have largely been emptied of cars, except for those running on the last reserves of fuel, or on cooking gas or used vegetable oil.

Gaza will be high on the agenda at a meeting of donors to the Palestinians in London this Friday. Last year, after Hamas seized full control of Gaza, Israel imposed an economic blockade, preventing exports and allowing in only limited supplies of food, fuel and aid.

Recent militant attacks on Gaza’s crossings, strongly condemned by the UN, have meant a tightening of the closures.

Hours before Gaza’s sole power plant was to shut down, Israel pumped in one million litres of industrial diesel, enough to last the plant about three days.

The effects are mounting. Last Tuesday, Gaza’s central pharmacy ran out of fuel to refrigerate vaccines during the now regular power cuts. The main laundry at Shifa hospital, which washes sheets and uniforms for six hospitals and all government clinics, had less than a day’s fuel left.

”This is the first time in 40 years of operating that we’ve faced such a problem,” said Samir el-Ankar, the laundry manager.

About three-quarters of the 4 000 agricultural wells in Gaza depend on fuel-powered pumps. Fuel shortages have already drastically increased food prices. A kilogram of tomatoes has risen from one shekel to six shekels in Gaza City.

Israel halted supplies of fuel for transport three weeks ago after Gazan militants attacked the Nahal Oz fuel crossing and killed two Israeli civilian workers. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were injured in an attack last Saturday at the Kerem Shalom crossing, used to deliver food and aid.

”We remain committed to not allowing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. ”But you cannot talk about the difficulties in delivering fuel to the Gaza Strip without stating and restating the fact that terrorists under the auspices of Hamas have deliberately targeted the fuel supply depot. It’s almost as if their agenda is nihilistic.”

Regev said there were problems with fuel distribution inside Gaza, which meant Hamas maintained a supply of fuel for its military vehicles. All the fuel is paid for by the Palestinian Authority or the European Union.

For nearly three weeks, the fuel distributors had effectively been on strike in protest at the shortages. ”We ask Israel to declare they will send the right amount of fuel into Gaza that is necessary for our needs,” said Mahmoud Khazendar, vice-president of the distributors’ association. ”If they want to punish Hamas then OK, but not 1,5-million people.”

He admitted Hamas had taken some fuel as soon as it arrived in Gaza, but said the amounts were equivalent to two or three days’ delivery over three months. — Â