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Most of the estimated one and a half million people who live in the Gaza Strip rely on aid from international organizations. But aid workers in Gaza say they face increasing pressure from two sides. Israel is restricting access to food and medicine, and Hamas is trying to exert its authority over aid distribution.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Gaza City.
(Soundbite of crowd)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a typically busy afternoon at this U.N. food distribution center in Gaza City. Men and women load sacks of food onto the back of donkey-drawn carts.
Ms. IBTIHAL DOULASH (Resident, Gaza City): (Speaking foreign language)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Seventy-five year old Ibtihal Doulash says she receives flour, cooking oil, sugar and other essentials. With seven children and more than 40 grandchildren, she says her family would starve without the regular rations.
Ms. DOULASH: (Through Translator) We need this because there is no work here. The Egyptian border is closed. The Israeli border terminals are often closed. And there is no work in the Gaza Strip. It's only this food that gives us some help so we can survive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At least 85 percent of Palestinians in Gaza receive some kind of aid from international donors, the United Nations being the largest, but there are a host of other organizations that also provide help. NGOs here say while getting aid to Gaza residents has always been challenging, the situation recently has gotten worse.
Bill Corcoran is the president of ANERA, American Near East Refugee Aid. He says Israel restrictions have become tougher.
Mr. BILL CORCORAN (President, American Near East Refugee Aid): Rules and regulations have changed and many of them are not written, so we can't pre-plan. And we're finding out that even though we had an assumption of something being permitted to enter through the port, suddenly when it arrives at the port it's not as a result of the processing time has stretched from two weeks to three months, almost. So we're rather stuck.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aid organizations complain that what can be brought in is determined arbitrarily by Israeli authorities. One group says that one day it was stopped from bringing in catheters, the next day it was lentils. No reason was given as to why the items were banned. Israel says it allows more than 100 truckloads of humanitarian aid to enter Gaza every day.
Adding to those constraints are new demands from the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. Some charities allege that Hamas is trying to politicize aid distribution. Speaking off the record for fear of retribution against local staff, some foreign aid workers say they're being asked to provide Hamas with recipient lists, staff salaries and locations of distribution centers. They worry that Hamas is trying to bolster its standing in Gaza by influencing the key distribution process.
One NGO said they were visited six times in a month by Hamas officials. On one occasion, those officials were armed. Several organizations have received letters giving them a deadline to formally register their presence with the Hamas government in Gaza.
Michael Bailey is with the British charity OXFAM. He says American and European NGOs are not allowed to deal with Hamas directly.
Mr. MICHAEL BAILEY (Spokesman, OXFAM): European law makes it quite clear that we may not do anything that directly benefits Hamas because Hamas is a terrorist organization on the list. That's why we're very careful to make sure that the aid that we're delivering is going to people in need.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A spokesman for Hamas' interior ministry denied allegations that they were putting unfair pressure on NGOs. He said Hamas will not try to interfere in their operations.
But Hamas spokesman Ihab al-Ghusain says that NGOs must be registered with the Hamas authority by the end of the month or there will be consequences.
Mr. IHAB AL-GHUSAIN (Interior Ministry Spokesman, Hamas): (Through Translator) There will be some legal action against those who aren't licensed. It might be a warning or we might have to ask them to shut down that office.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: If that happens, says ANERA's Bill Corcoran, it would be disastrous for innocent Palestinians who rely so much on international aid. He says both Israel and Hamas must allow NGOs to do their work.
Mr. CORCORAN: And in many countries, all we ask for is to be left independent, left alone to act as professionals in humanitarian relief and development. And that's not happening right now from either side. We're caught in a horrible location right now.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Gaza City.
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