Middle East

Aid Groups Frustrated At Lack Of Gaza Access

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International aid agencies trying to get supplies and personnel from Israel into the Gaza Strip are increasingly frustrated and angry.

Israel eased its blockade of Gaza on Thursday, opening the border, but only under pressure and only to a few organizations.

Aid organizations say they need to get into Gaza to assess needs and relieve colleagues who are exhausted after the three-week Israeli offensive.

But Mike Baily of Oxfam International says for six days since the cease-fire, the Israeli government has given them the runaround.

"We've had every reason under the sun given to us for not going in ... security, not the right day, that is was closed for holiday, that the right people were not available, that we would hear tomorrow," he says.

In addition to supervising deliveries of items like food, medicine and plastic sheeting, Oxfam urgently needs to help Gazan farmers restore their destroyed fields, Baily says, and clear them of unexploded ordinance.

"If we don't plant crops now, we won't harvest in three, four months time, and the one and a half million people of Gaza will be completely dependent on food aid ... coming in from outside," he says.

Evonne Frederickson with Sweden's Palestinian Solidarity Association has been trying to get mental health experts and doctors into Gaza. She says Israeli policy toward aid agencies has been capricious for a long time.

"Sometimes you get in, sometimes you don't, so they are playing with those who are working with the aid to Gaza," she says.

Cassandra Nelson of Mercy Corps says she has called Israeli authorities every day since the cease-fire last weekend.

"We are pressing and pressing on all sides of this argument but have not gotten any clear or logical response ... so we can't respond and have a proper dialogue," she says. "We are simply told 'no, no humanitarian aid workers.'"

Several aid organizations finally decided to go to the border Thursday in a convoy accompanied by the press, to publicize the blockade. After several hours, some aid representatives were let through.

But Nelson says there was no explanation for who got in and who was denied access. Major players like Save the Children were turned away. And, Nelson says, there are no guarantees about the future.

"This is going to be over a billion-dollar reconstruction project for Gaza, and it simply can't be run by people sitting around and waiting every day for hours at a border point wondering if their name is on a list or not on a list," she says. "There need to be proper procedures."

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes says Israel has promised cooperation, but he is pushing for clarification.

"We need to see that demonstrated in practice so that they know they will not only get in today but tomorrow," he says.

Holmes also called on Israel yet again to open more crossing points for supplies. He says Gaza desperately needs generators and construction materials — and help to repair damaged sewage lines.

"The local water authorities raised with us the prospect of not just the immediate health risks but the damage that could be done to the aquifers by the accumulation of such large quantities of raw sewage seeping down into the aquifers," he says. "We're in a time-critical situation."

Israel has blocked all construction materials from reaching Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory 19 months ago. Holmes has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade Israel that international aid will not be diverted to Hamas.

Asked about the continued limits on aid, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not directly address the issue of aid workers. And he gave no promises that the borders would be open for anything more than immediate aid any time soon.

"We will be part of [the] reconstruction effort but one that helps the people of Gaza, but not one that helps Hamas," he says.

But with 4,000 homes destroyed and another 17,000 badly damaged, the U.N. and other aid organizations say the civilians of Gaza cannot afford to wait for a regime change.



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