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How Israel’s 'convoluted' inspections are hindering Gaza aid

Humanitarian groups say Israel's time-consuming inspections process and denial of "dual-use" goods is hampering aid delivery in the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian Red Crescent members load on a truck humanitarian aid for war-torn Gaza brought by a French air force Airbus A400M cargo aircraft at El-Arish International Airport on November 20, 2023 as Israel has vowed to destroy Gaza's rulers Hamas after the Palestinian militant group carried out the deadliest attack in the country's history on October 7. About 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were killed in Israel during Hamas's October 7 attack and around 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials

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Sleeping bags. Vitamin drink powder. An ultrasound machine. 

These are a few of the items that aid groups say Israeli inspectors have barred from entering the Gaza Strip over the past four months. 

The denial of some humanitarian goods is complicating aid delivery in the impoverished Palestinian enclave, where the Hamas-run Health Ministry says more than 27,000 people have died in Israel’s offensive and more than 85% of the population has fled their homes. 

Humanitarian agencies say it's a guessing game of which goods destined for Gaza will be blocked at the border on any given day. The Israeli defense agency that liaises with the Palestinians — known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT — hasn’t provided aid groups with an updated list of prohibited items. 

Critics say the ambiguity is intentional.  

"They don't want to clarify because they don't want to make it easier," said one humanitarian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There are a lot of echoes of what we see in other places like Syria or Sudan, where you have a government that wants to create bureaucratic impediments to the aid effort."

Even before the current war, Israel heavily restricted imports to Gaza that were considered dual use, such as cement and fertilizers that Hamas could use to expand its network of tunnels and build more bombs. A common concern was that the Palestinian militant group, whose fighters killed 1,200 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7 and kidnapped 240 others, could make rockets using tent poles or water pipes stolen from aid groups. 

Inconsistent security screenings

Through word of mouth, aid workers have compiled their own lists of items they expect to be consistently rejected during Israeli security screenings. One such list shared with Al-Monitor includes everything from fire hoses, water purification tablets, flashlights and solar-power batteries to X-ray machines, stretchers and bedpans. 

Aid officials working for international nongovernmental groups say the decision of whether to clear those and other items is often at the discretion of whichever customs officer is inspecting the truck. 

“The uncertainty is extremely problematic in organizing our responses,” Bill O’Keefe, an executive vice president at Catholic Relief Services, said at a media briefing last week. 

“We are humanitarian organizations bringing in humanitarian supplies for 2.2 million people. And if every single nail clipper has to be inspected, we are never going to get to scale,” O’Keefe said. 

Israel says it has processed more than 229,000 tons of aid and that the delivery process could be sped up if the United Nations and aid groups increase their number of personnel and trucks. 

Most days see fewer than 200 truckloads of aid reaching the enclave, far below the pre-war average of 500 trucks per day, according to UN figures. Even if more trucks could enter, Israel's airstrikes and ground operations would make it difficult for aid workers to safely distribute the goods beyond the south, they say. 

A COGAT spokesperson did not return a request for comment, but a recent statement from the agency described accusations that Israel was obstructing aid as no more than "fake news and defamations."  

The United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency, known as UNRWA, is the main aid coordinator in Gaza. The UN agency says its aid operations in Gaza are at risk of collapse after the United States and other international donors halted funding over allegations that some UNRWA employees participated in Hamas' Oct. 7 massacre. 

UNRWA, along with the Palestine Red Crescent Society and other international groups, are delivering aid to Gaza through two border crossings: Rafah on the Egyptian side and Kerem Shalom on the Israeli side.  

Before their trucks can enter Gaza, they must first undergo a security screening in Israel. If even a single item in the truck is rejected — because it's not on the manifest, or an overly vigilant customs officer decides it's problematic — the driver must head back to Egypt, where the cargo is unloaded and repackaged. There is a similarly time-consuming process for aid shipments coming from Jordan.  

Mounting concern in Washington 

A group of 25 Senate Democrats highlighted the “convoluted inspections process” in a letter to President Joe Biden last week, recommending the administration press Israel to “issue a pre-approved list of items for entry.”

Leaders from around half a dozen international aid groups raised the cumbersome inspections process in Gaza, among other issues, during a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington last week.  

The top US diplomat returned to the Middle East this week for talks centered on containing the war in Gaza as well as planning for the embattled territory’s reconstruction. In meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, Blinken said he proposed "key steps" to increase aid access, including reopening the Erez crossing to north Gaza. 

Ahead of his arrival, hundreds of Israeli protesters gathered at the Kerem Shalom crossing to prevent aid from passing. The demonstrators, who include hostages' families, are demanding no assistance flow to Gaza until Hamas releases the captives. 

"Israel must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday. 

Distribution efforts, especially in northern Gaza, where the needs are greatest, are also hampered by the fact that aid workers are unable to move around freely in the active war zone. According to the UN, the Israeli military facilitated just eight of the 51 humanitarian convoys that requested to go to northern Gaza between Jan. 1 and Jan. 25. Twenty-nine requests were denied, and others were postponed for security reasons. 

As Israel's offensive has intensified in the south, the military has signaled it will push into the crowded southern city of Rafah, where most aid enters. Blinken said he urged the Israelis to improve their coordination with aid providers in Gaza, where more than 150 UN workers have already died in the conflict. 

Ultimately, aid agencies say it’s impossible to fully address the worsening humanitarian emergency without a permanent cease-fire, which both Israel and the United States say would benefit Hamas. 

Jesse Marks, the senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, said the Biden administration is instead getting bogged in negotiating the minutiae of aid delivery. 

“You have senior US government officials talking to NGOs about pallet sizes,” Marks said. “Sadly, this is the humanitarian environment Israel has created.” 

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