3 April 2009
Oxfam's Michael Robin Bailey reports from the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
A truckload of Pampers is driven into the Kerem Shalom crossing ahead of us. One consignment of 36 wooden pallets piled to a height of 160 cm. Not enough to meet the household needs in Gaza where 170 babies are born every day. "We have seen a lot of Pampers and toilet rolls recently," confides the Israeli army major who is assigned to liaise with the humanitarian community. Also macaroni and spaghetti now that they have been approved at the political level of the Israeli administration.
I am here with 13 colleagues from the humanitarian community, three middle ranking Israeli soldiers and the manager of Kerem Shalom. 20 adults earnestly discussing baby nappies and the security significance of pasta. Meanwhile inside Gaza 8,000 families are waiting for the materials to rebuild the homes that were destroyed nearly three months ago.
It has been a long drive to get here. Nearly two hours from Jerusalem including half an hour on the road since we passed the turn off to Karni's purpose build commercial crossing in and out of Gaza. The Israeli government closed the Karni crossing in June 2007 after Hamas took control of Gaza. Since then all of Gaza's supplies have been rerouted 40 kilometres further south. Once they are inside Gaza the supplies are taken 40 kilometres back north to the Gaza City area where most of the population live. Half an hour provides time to do the maths and think about the answer. 700 trucks a week driving 40 kilometres further to use Kerem Shalom. That is 28,000 extra kilometres driven, and the same again inside Gaza every week. It adds up to nearly three million kilometres a year, using two million litres of diesel, over a million pounds' worth at local prices.
We stand in the wind that is blowing straight across from Egypt, less than 200 metres away. Two truck drivers bicker, pushing one another in the queue to get their paperwork checked. Once one is cleared he drives his truck another 100 metres into the complex. We follow in our white UN bus, complete with a pile of blue helmets and body armour on the back seat in case there is an attack while we are here. Kerem Shalom is in an Israeli military area at the intersection of Gaza, Israel and Egypt. Palestinian armed groups have frequently targeted it in the past. A year ago a suicide bomber detonated a truckload of explosives. That shut the crossing for months. We are reminded that this is also where Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted over 1,000 days ago. Policy won't change until he has been freed we have been told.
Kerem Shalom's operations manager says his main aim is getting humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. However, he always gives priority to security, "If there is any danger for people, I will close the crossing immediately." He describes how his operation is hemmed in. On one side, by problems getting his Palestinian workers to work on time, "Hamas is controlling everything, they hold up the workers coming from Gaza." On the other hand he is ordered to manage up to 150 trucks a day although he says he could handle 400 or 500. "It depends on the policy." Since June 2007, the Israeli government policy is that nothing other than humanitarian aid goes into Gaza.
A truck drives away from unloading area B with several pallets still on board. Tell-tale X shaped cuts in the packaging have revealed cosmetics instead of hygiene supplies. Rejected as not humanitarian in nature. On the ground in area B are lines of pallets loaded with goods that have passed the inspection. They have been offloaded from the Israeli trucks. Now they wait here for area B to be sealed and the shuttle to take them on the next stage of their journey. On the other side of the concrete screen the shuttle is at work in area A. Kerem Shalom works its pair of unloading areas in sequence. One is filled while the other empties. We troop off to the manager's office to see the next stages of the operation projected onto his wall.
Our host toggles the control of a remote camera to zoom in on a shuttle of sterile trucks. We look down on the empty lorries as they return from the Palestinian loading area just a hundred metres or so further in towards the Gaza Strip. They trundle into area B to be loaded and return to the Palestinian side to be unloaded minutes later. All day long they shuttle. Every piece of humanitarian aid has been loaded onto a pallet, wrapped in plastic and labelled before it began its long journey to Kerem Shalom. It has been unloaded from one truck onto the ground. It has been loaded onto the shuttle truck and unloaded again. Towards the end of the day it will be picked up a third time to be loaded finally onto a Palestinian truck to be taken into Gaza.
The manager's wall reveals one further feature of Kerem Shalom's armoury against smuggling and bombs. In a separate concrete-walled compound, whole truckloads of pallets can be x-rayed. Smuggling is a real concern. Its not just lipstick and aftershave. Spare truck tyres have been found packed with computer chips. A fake bomb was spotted just days before, "Israeli security put that in there to test us and we found it." Our host and his team are keeping one step ahead of the businessmen and the security services that are trying to catch them out.
One final question, "If I have a truck load of children's sports shoes, will they be allowed in?" I ask. The major will have to see, and if there is a problem he will ask his superiors he tells us. "So is there a list you will check?" The major seems weary, "The list, the list, you are always asking for a list." If there is one it seems we shall not be getting a copy. We shall continue to do our best. Each of us in our own sterile compartment. Shut off by concrete and policy from the others. Drip feeding a million and a half people suspended in dependency while we wait for the policy to change so that they can take care of themselves.