23 July 2007
Mike Bailey, Oxfam's Civil Society Programme Co-ordinator, reports on the current situation.
"Is everything OK?". "Yes", we all replied to the gas station café waiter who brought our coffee. What else could we say?
We could have replied:
"No, it's not okay that less than five minutes drive away there are one and a half million people who cannot leave their small strip of land to visit friends and relatives, to study, to get life saving treatment, to earn money to feed their children, to live a normal life. One and a half million prisoners, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be cut off from the world simply because they live in Gaza".
Or we could have replied:
"No, it's not okay that five international aid workers have had to travel from Jerusalem to meet Israeli army officers to try to ease the restrictions on the import and export of pipes and pumps to keep clean water arriving in people's houses, cement for building schools and clinics, and fertilizer to help grow food".
Or we could have replied:
"No, it's not okay that 500 tons less of essential humanitarian supplies get into Gaza every time the crossing at Karem Shalom is attacked from within Gaza by Palestinians. It seems as if tripping the man bringing food to their children is more important than seeing their children fed by their enemy".
Just how not okay is this tragic play in which each of an interminable number of acts seems more pointless and hopeless than the last? We pass through the gates of the military compound at the Erez terminal to find out.
Handshakes in the hot sun, then we stroll into the clean new offices of the Co-ordination and Liaison Administration. Whoever works in this office has friends in high places judging by the spectacular arial shots of Jerusalem's old city.
More handshakes, plates of cakes and biscuits and cut fruit (plums and apple), jugs of iced water and thermoses of hot water for coffee. The table in the Colonel's office groans under the weight of the refreshments. We are polite. We would like to understand what problems prevent the import of essential humanitarian supplies, like water pipes and cement, into Gaza and how we can make those problems go away, or at least work around them.
The Colonel is the boss here. We can see that because he has the laptop and three ivy leaves on each of his epaulettes. Our usual friend, the Major, has only one leaf per shoulder and a smaller office, I expect. We could be visiting the Department of Trade and Industry, it is all so ordinary.
We talk of import barriers. ""It's all a matter of communication breakdown", the dry-skinned Colonel patiently explains in his calm, dry voice. "There is no one for us to talk to on the other side. There is only Hamas and we won't talk to Hamas".
We talk export statistics. There are exports from Gaza, we are surprised to hear. We lean forward. The colonel almost smiles as he flourishes his conjuring trick: a photo on his laptop. "Yes, this roadside bomb was exported through Kerem Shalom". Caught us off guard. The other side has its own means of delivering death and injury, less efficient perhaps, but just as ruthless.
We have to think security, sterile areas, sterilized trucks, when we try to understand why the temporary, expensive to use, unpopular, and limited commercial crossing points of Sufa and Kerem Shalom are the only operational options while the purpose-built, state of the art, high-capacity Karni crossing is shut and will stay shut while there is only Hamas not to talk to in Gaza.
The colonel steers us expertly away from talking about how to get Karni open to how to make the best of Sufa and Kerem Shalom. Opening Karni isn't on his agenda, getting the maximum amount of humanitarian supplies through Sufa and Kerem Shalom is. If we accept this set of rules for the game of helping Gaza to be dependent, we have to learn that we are responsible for making the choice between food and cement, medicines and water pipes, but understand that when we decide to give pipes, pumps, and spare parts or cement a higher priority, we are choosing to send less food.
Apparently, it is the humanitarian community who are responsible, along with the rocket makers and mortar firers in Gaza, but not the soldiers of Israel or their government. The Colonel is clear about that. "The responsibility is not on the Israeli side". And again later concerning shutting Kerem Shalom, "It is not our responsibility or decision when to launch rockets". No, but they are launched partly because of the decision on the Israeli side that we will not be looking for ways to open Karni.
The Colonel reassures us in his dry way that he sees no crisis in Gaza. He doesn't see any lack in the Palestinian markets, so there is nothing for us to be worried about. We agree silently to disagree and move on to hopefully more productive discussion.
We ask about getting people into Gaza who are trapped on the Egyptian side of the Raffah crossing. Not a problem for small numbers, we are told. Indeed, the ever-helpful Colonel's team has provided passage back into Gaza for 20 people and their close relatives in the past couple of weeks. They came through Kerem Shalom. Unfortunately, to get this special attention you need to be dead. These are people who have died in hospital beds or car accidents in Egypt while they wait to get home to their families in Gaza. So the Co-ordination and Liaison Administration runs an efficient undertaking service. It's the first thing that makes sense all morning.
We end the meeting looking at the remains of a Qassam rocket, a piece of exploded water pipe with fins welded on. We are reminded how close mortars come to where we are standing and of the risk Israel is taking to keep Erez open for international humanitarian workers to pass in and out of Gaza. We are reminded that on the other side is the entity (Hamas), which says they want to destroy Israel. There doesn't seem much to say.
Or rather, there is everything to say, it is just a case of being prepared to talk, of finding common ground and building on that. Why not put the needs of one and a half million people first and find where both sides have a shared interest? What about talking about how we could get Karni open, defining what would need to happen for the Israeli side to feel safe and for the Palestinian side to feel they could make guarantees? What about a team of international volunteers in a buffer zone? The Colonel's final dry word on this was that this is not a topic for this table.
Opening Karni, then, is a topic for a bigger table in a bigger office for people with more than three leaves on each shoulder. Wherever, it's the topic, the only topic, that can provide hope to the one and a half million prisoners of Gaza.