JERUSALEM (JTA) — With international aid organizations describing the Gaza situation as a humanitarian crisis following the recent war, Israel is grappling with how to allow in necessary aid while keeping material that could be used against Israel out of the hands of Hamas.
Israel controls the crossings into Gaza along the Israel-Gaza border, and most aid from Egypt, which also borders Gaza, must first pass through Israel. This makes virtually all supplies flowing into Gaza contingent upon Israeli approval.
An office in the Israeli Defense Ministry created after the 1967 Six-Day War is responsible for the coordination of humanitarian activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As supplies arrive for Gaza from all over the world — from Europe to Saudi Arabia and even from Israel itself — it is the office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories that decides if and when the provisions will enter the strip.
"We make sure there are no problems with what is sent, that it really is humanitarian supplies," said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the office.
"There are many organizations in the world that want to send supplies to the Palestinians that are actually outlawed organizations," he said, referring to groups that aid terrorists. However, he added, "since the beginning of the war I am not aware of any circumstances where aid was refused."
The war has left 50,000 Palestinians homeless and more than 5,450 injured, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Last week, Gisha: The Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli nongovernmental organization, reported that some 200,000 people in Gaza are without running water, and most others only receive water for a few hours every couple of days.
Gisha also said that more than a quarter of a million Gazans have been without electricity for a month, but the Israeli Defense Ministry said it has repaired all the power lines between Israel and Gaza and is allowing fuel into Gaza so the Palestinians can power their own station.
Israel’s coordination office divides humanitarian supplies sent to Gaza into two categories.
"Firstly, there are immediate needs, such as medical supplies, food, fixing the windows — all the things that are needed right now," Lerner said. "The second category is made up of more long-term needs, such as rebuilding buildings and fixing hospitals and schools. Our job is to coordinate these activities, to make sure that the supplies are being used for the purpose they were intended for."
On the Gazan side, the coordination of supplies is done mainly through international organizations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross. Israel’s coordination office depends upon these organizations, which have large Palestinian staffs in Gaza, to take the supplies into the strip and ensure they stay out of the hands of Hamas.
Much of the aid comes from NGOs, including Israeli ones.
"At the beginning of the war, we put out a call for donations," said Ran Yaron, director of the Occupied Territories Department at Physicians for Human Rights in Israel. "Each week we received a list from the Palestinian Ministry of Health, which detailed the items that were needed in Gaza. With the donation money we received, we bought items that were on these lists. The six truckloads we sent contained things like ICU beds, supplies which together had a total value of 10 million shekels" — roughly $2.5 million.
Of the funds that came in as a direct response to the call for donations, 50 percent came from Israelis and 50 percent from overseas, Yaron said.
Some groups, including Physicians for Human Rights and Gisha, charge that Israel is preventing essential humanitarian supplies from getting into Gaza.
Gisha spokesman Itamar Shachar said the Israeli government is pursuing a "policy of deliberate obstruction" of humanitarian supplies and impeding the rebuilding of Gaza’s water, sewage and power systems. He says Israel has not allowed spare parts necessary to repair these systems to enter the strip and has only permitted the passage of 64 percent of the fuel necessary to run Gaza’s power system.
"Right now, Israel is not allowing concrete into Gaza for the rebuilding of homes," Yaron added. "The windows of many homes and hospitals were broken during the war, and Israel is currently not allowing glass into Gaza."
Lerner insists Israel is doing everything it can to let in humanitarian supplies while keeping out materials that could be used for terrorist activities. Given the aptitude of Gaza’s rocket and bomb makers, that makes a lot of seemingly innocuous material problematic.
"We do not have the expertise to decide what is needed; we have the expertise to say what is not all right," Lerner said. "We will not allow hoses to pass in freely because hoses are put into rockets. We will not allow an unchecked amount of cement and concrete to enter because they will be used to build bunkers and underground tunnels for use against our soldiers."
In the past, Lerner says, Israel allowed supplies such as hoses into Gaza and made sure they were installed for civilian use. But then Israel learned that the material was uninstalled and taken by Hamas fighters for militant uses.
"My first job is to protect the citizens of Israel," Lerner said.