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Israel asks for more time to respond to court petition on Gaza aid

A truck carrying humanitarian aid slated for Gaza awaits clearance at an Israeli crossing
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel asked for an extension Wednesday before presenting to the country's top court measures to increase aid into the besieged Gaza Strip, where hunger is spreading after more than six months of war.

Five non-profit groups have taken the state to court, accusing authorities of restricting the entry of relief items and failing to respect their "obligations as an occupying power" to provide basic necessities to Gazans.

After a first hearing last week, the court had given the government until Wednesday to answer its questions but the state instead asked for a five-day extension, which the non-profits answered with a "strong objection".

The extension "would effectively double the time allocated to it by the court" while the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains dire, Miriam Marmur, of rights group Gisha, one of the plaintiffs, told AFP.

The petition asks the government to specify what measures the executive branch will resort to to increase aid to Gaza, what obstacles stand in the way of NGOs working in Gaza, and how many requests for coordination to bring aid in have been rejected.

Israel, which has been fighting militants in the Hamas-ruled territory since the October 7 attack, has insisted it does not limit aid supplies and blames shortages on a lack of distribution by aid agencies and charities within Gaza.

"Contrary to Israel's claims that there was no limit on entry of aid to Gaza, several policy choices are hindering" aid delivery, said Marmur.

Once the state submits its response, "the petitioning organisations will be given five days to respond to it, after which the court could give its ruling", Marmur said.

While Israel has largely blamed the United Nations for not distributing aid properly inside Gaza, UN and humanitarian officials have denounced restrictions and administrative brakes on the entry of severely needed supplies.

Officials point to UN figures of at least 500 aid and commercial trucks a day entering Gaza before the war.

On Tuesday, Israeli authorities said 468 trucks had been let in, the highest reported number since the current fighting began.

A spokesman for the United Nations' humanitarian office, OCHA, pointed to statistics from March showing that it was much more difficult to get clearance for delivering food into Gaza than other aid.

"Food convoys that should be going particularly to the north, where 70 percent of people face famine conditions, are... three times more likely to be denied than any other humanitarian convoys with other kinds of material," Jens Laerke told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

- Dire needs -

Humanitarian aid's path to the Gaza Strip

Marmur hit out at the blocking of "dual-use" items that Israel says could be used for military purposes, a long-standing policy that predates the current fighting.

Despite withdrawing from the coastal territory in 2005, Israel has maintained control over its borders and imposed a crippling blockade when Hamas seized power two years later.

Jean-Raphael Poitou, of Action Against Hunger, told AFP that "solar panels and generators, for instance" are included in the banned list of "dual-use" items.

"It's the sort of thing we need to be able to meet needs in Gaza more efficiently," he said.

Alexandre Fort, logistics coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said that despite Israeli claims that aid was being increased, getting supplies into the territory was a long and arduous process.

And Poitou was cautious on recent signals from Israeli authorities that the Erez crossing in Gaza's north -- where needs are highest -- could soon be reopened.

"We'd have to see how this would be concretely enacted," he said.

Some countries have turned to airdropping aid, a method experts criticised as dangerous and inefficient, with scores of Gazans killed in stampedes, drownings and when a parachute malfunctioned.

The October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel that sparked the war resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,482 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's health ministry.