Gaza blockade – no signs of loosening

Nearly a week after a ceasefire agreement that was believed to include the partially lifting of the blockade on Gaza, no restrictions have been eased, say humanitarians and border guards.

NGOs are eager to increase aid to the Palestinian region after a 50-day Israeli bombing campaign left over 2,000 dead, thousands wounded and much of the enclave’s infrastructure in ruins, but access rules continue to present huge challenges.

While the exact terms of the ceasefire agreement, reached last week between Israel and various Palestinian factions, have not been released, it was widely reported that Tel Aviv committed to easing its border sanctions in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, while Egypt, too, was expected to ease its blockade.

Yet at the three main crossings – the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings into Israel and the Rafah border post to Egypt – the previous policies have remained in place. “At both Erez and Kerem Shalom for now there hasn’t been any change in the regime of allowing passage for people and goods,” said Maria Jose Torres, deputy head of office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

She said the organization had hoped for more clarity on the opening up. “We were expecting that the agreement of the ceasefire would have some kind of timeline for easing and lifting the blockade but so far we have nothing publicly. There might be something we are not aware of,” she said, referencing ongoing indirect talks between Palestinian factions and Israel.

Wael Abu Omar, spokesperson for the authorities on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, also said officials had been expecting an immediate easing of restrictions and increase of traffic after the ceasefire. However, he said policies had not changed and the number of trade trucks entering daily had remained roughly static at its wartime level of between 200 and 250.

Fikr Shaltoot, director of programmes in Gaza for the UK-based Medical Aid for the Palestinians (MAP), said they too had been disappointed by the lack of change. “We were hoping to see immediate change on all the crossings. So far I don’t see any kind of improvement on this,” she said, adding that the medical need in Gaza was acute. “Even before the aggression, there were severe shortages of drugs – 28 percent of essential goods were at zero stock,” she said. “Now the situation is critical.”

Yet Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told IRIN that as the exact terms of the ceasefire agreement had not been made public, much of the expectation had been based upon conjecture.

Seeking dual use agreements

As fears that the blockade will not be eased grow, the people of Gaza could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of déjà vu. In November 2012, following eight days of fighting, an agreement was struck between Hamas and Israel that was supposed to ease the blockade.

Many of the basic tenets of that deal were similar to what was reported of the newly-agreed one. Following the agreement, border policies were briefly eased, with Palestinians in Gaza having freer movement both to Egypt and Israel.

“You can’t bring in bottled water for 500,000 people. You need to repair the water facilities. To do that you need technical equipment”

Yet while there were initial promising signs, the deal was never fully implemented – particularly after the pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt was overthrown by the country’s military, a move supported by mass public demonstrations. The country’s new leader, former military general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is hostile to Hamas and sanctions have increased.

This time, too, the threat of the deal collapsing is real, especially as there appear to be few enforcing mechanisms. Hirschson confirmed to IRIN that the terms of the agreement included no guarantees that either side would fulfil their side of the bargain.

If no policy changes are forthcoming in the coming days, analysts say humanitarian access may ultimately depend on seeking some consensus during the negotiations due to take place in Cairo in the coming weeks. Finding common ground will be a monumental challenge. Among the key issues for Hamas are the release of hundreds of prisoners, and the construction of a port and an airport that would allow Palestinians freedom of movement and access to the world without Israeli control.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution think tank in Doha, said one way to help facilitate better access would be to continue moves towards a potential international mission to monitor borders.

In recent weeks, diplomatic moves have been made to discuss a potential European Union force to monitor the crossings with both Israel and Egypt, thus potentially assuaging some of Israel’s security concerns while ensuring more access. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has welcomed the idea.

“There is a growing acceptance of the need for more international involvement on the ground,” Shaikh said, adding that it was too early to say exactly what form the force would take.


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