Monday, 21 February 2011

On the road again

9 July 2007
Mike Bailey, Oxfam's Civil Society Programme Co-ordinator, reports on the current situation.
I'm on the road again, little wonder since roads are the key to this Gaza crisis. One and a half million people supplied by road through three choke points gripped by the hard steel hand of Israel. I'm going to check again how much this grip is being loosened.
What's this you say? What Gaza crisis? Wasn't that last week? Haven't we been hearing how calm it is in Gaza now? Aren't the humanitarian supplies getting in? Food, medicines and chemicals for keeping the water clean? Yes to all those but one and a half million people cannot live by bread alone, simply surviving is not living at all but the people of Gaza are out of sight and soon will be forgotten by the world. That's why Oxfam have sent me on the road again. That's why I'm telling you.
It's all noise and dust as the grain truck and trailer arrives. Credit: Michael Robin Bailey/Oxfam
Travelling with colleagues from Oxford and New York I'm visiting the makeshift crossing at Sufa which is working flat out and the high tech, custom built crossing at Karni which is hardly working at all. It's a day of emptiness and silence, the eerie silence of one and a half million people holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. First we get to Sufa, far down in the south of Gaza's land locked south east coast. By the time we get there in the early afternoon there is nothing at the end of the tarmac road except the unfriendly sandy sprawl of the closed military zone and the low mound behind which the day's consignment of one hundred and seven aid trucks have unloaded their cargoes of flour and oil and beans and rice and milk and eggs for the Palestinians to load again onto their trucks to take to warehouses and then to shops and hospitals throughout Gaza.
The grain driver from Kyriat Gat, happy to have done his job bringing food to the people. Credit: Michael Robin Bailey/Oxfam
We were too late, the Israeli defense force has taken its clip board and its beach umbrella home for the day, job done, people fed the basics, enough to survive. An efficient, cheerful operation if it was like the one I saw here last week, a public relations success that distracts us from the reality of the siege. One and a half million people permitted to breathe the stale air of Israel's benevolence, not the fresh air of freedom the rest of us like to think we enjoy.
Karni's multi million dollar crossing stands empty and unused. Credit: Michael Robin Bailey/Oxfam
I talk to the Major in charge of this humanitarian respirator on my mobile phone. He is pleased to tell me how many truckloads were processed at Sufa. He tells me work is continuing at the smaller and more mysterious Karem Shalom crossing even further south. There they will process twenty trucks today, maybe twenty one. We can't go there, we didn't get permission. I wonder what we are missing. But good news, at karni the grain transfer is still going on, we can go to see that. We race off up route 232. Forty kilometers to Karni. Forty extra kilometers the 128 trucks drove today to use the southern crossings instead of the state of the art, multi million dollar moribund Karni crossing. The shortest route from Israel to Gaza city for all the humanitarian supplies is thirty thousand kilometers a week longer than it needs to be. How much extra does thirty thousand kilometers cost for a heavily laden truck and the extra thirty thousand kilometers going home?
You have to suspend your disbelief. You have to accept the surreal. At Karni, we drive past the empty lanes of new concrete, the barriers and stop signs, the potted flowers and brightly painted wishing wells of the crossing, all silent and deserted in the sun. We drive around the side to the mounds of aggregate waiting to be conveyed into Gaza as building materials. We drive underneath a slender bridge carrying a conveyor belt from Israel into Gaza and there at the end we find one lone soldier. Aaron, from nearby Be'er Sheva, happy in his job overseeing the transfer of grain, via the aggregate conveyor, newly refurbished at Palestinian expense (he didn't tell us this bit), to supply Gaza's six flour mills.
Aaron explains to us that the commercial millers of Gaza have arranged a way to get the grain they need to make flour to make the daily bread for one and a half million people. I ask Aaron if using the conveyor for the grain was his idea. He smiles a modest smile, "No it was Israel's". Aaron is pleased to be doing his bit to feed the people over the border, beyond the wire and the concrete and the guns. He wouldn't be out of place in a humanitarian agency (apart from the gun).
We wait in the heat for the last two trucks of the day. It is hot and silent in this desert. Spur winged plovers, stark black and white fly from mound to mound of the creamy aggregate, a desert fox walks stealthily in the distance, stops to stare at us, large black ears listening, then melts away. We wait. Then, its all noise and dust as the grain truck and trailer arrives. Action, the truck is positioned over a grille in the ground at the end of the conveyor, the back is released, the grain starts to trickle, then flood as the container is tipped up. A golden cascade like pennies from heaven. The conveyor starts, the truck moves forward and the process is repeated with the container on the trailer. Aaron is excited, "Ten minutes, that's all it takes to transfer forty two tons of grain into Gaza, you can time it." He is proud of this. The Major is proud, when he calls me later to get my reaction. Proud to be providing, "the humanitarian basics and a bit more." Proud of a public relations job well done.
I commend him on the efficiency and good humor of his team. I don't get into politics, into the ethics and morality of siege and strangulation and artificial respiration of a million and a half people. That's a discussion to be had with the policy makers and politicians. The men with guns and rockets and bombs on both sides of the border. It's a discussion we should all be part of though.
Silence returns and the dust settles after the truck has sped away. And then in the distance we can hear the ghostly clatter and bangs of the trucks on the other side of the border, a world away, a hundred meters distant in Gaza as the golden grain is loaded to feed the hungry.
We drive away each in our own silence, thinking how quickly the bizarre becomes normal. How quickly we are lulled into accepting the unacceptable. One and a half million people depending on the good will of the system that holds them under siege, depending on the diligence and hard work of the truck drivers and the Major's cheerful few who stand with their clip boards all day sweating in the hot dusty desert while in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Gaza City and Ramallah, Cairo and Riyadh, Brussels and Washington the powerful deliberate and plot, self styled Olympian gods toying with the fate of mere mortals.

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