Food trucks try to unload as missiles explode

Wed, Jan 14, 2009, 00:00

PLUMES OF black-and-white smoke rose from Gaza’s northern neighbourhoods yesterday as the Israeli military escalated its land, sea and air offensive. Heavy thumps of artillery shells echoed across the green and pleasant land of southern Israel and shook the earth. Gaza’s low-rise buildings gleamed white against a blue sky streaked with thin cloud, writes Michael Jansen, on Israel’s border with Gaza

On the phone from Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, Irish national Caoimhe Butterly said Israel is concentrating its assault on the north, on Jabalya, a densely populated refugee city, and the outskirts of Gaza city.

“People in Rafah say the attack here is less bad than in the north,” she stated. The Rafah-Egyptian border and the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt were the focus of the offensive at the weekend.

She is accompanying a group of doctors and volunteers who plan to stay in Gaza to work in hospitals, with ambulances and in centres for displaced persons. The mission includes two Greek members of parliament who are assessing the humanitarian situation. Caoimhe, fluent in Arabic, intends to help co-ordinate aid to centres the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has opened for displaced persons. She said figures given for displaced persons are “too conservative”. Doctors at the Najjar hospital in Rafah say “the hospitals [in the strip] are desperate. They need supplies, equipment, and personnel”.

World Food Programme (WFP) regional director Daly Belgasmi launched Operation Lifeline with a visit to Karem Shalom, the sole operating goods crossing between Israel and Gaza. Dr Belgasmi said. “The humanitarian situation [in Gaza] is critical.” Before the war the WFP provided rations to 265,000 of Gaza’s poor not covered by UNRWA. Today, it supplies only 87,000 due to the lack of security and access. But once there is a ceasefire, the WFP plans to cover 365,000, 80 per cent of the non-refugee population. At present, WFP distribution centres deliver food to about 2,000 a day, rather than 6,000.

Karem Shalom is located at the southeast corner of the Gaza Strip where the Israeli border meets the Egyptian frontier. It is a frontline area. While lorries bearing flour gifted by Japan, sun- flower oil from Turkey, tinned corned-beef from Brazil and hummus from Jordan were waiting and being transferred, the dull thumps of artillery shells could be heard from beyond the concrete-slab wall that separates Israel from Gaza. All provisions do not come from abroad. The Geneva-based Action for Churches emergency network gathered medicines, blankets, milk powder and enriched biscuits in Nablus and Ramallah in the West Bank and transported them on three Palestinian-driven lorries to the crossing. “This is our first consignment,” said the Rev Kjell Jonasson of Sweden. “The sup- plies are going to al-Ahli hospital run by the Anglicans and Near East Council of Churches clinics.”

The transfer system works smoothly and swiftly. Laden lorries from Israel enter a walled compound through a gate on the Israeli side while the gate on the Palestinian side is closed. Orange forklift trucks scurry from lorry to lorry, unloading seven to eight. Then the Israelis withdraw and the Palestinian teams enter with lorries from Gaza. As there are two compounds, 80-100 lorries are unloaded every day.

Reserve Israeli army Capt Ron Edelheit said shipments are checked in the compounds. The process is monitored by cameras. Israel occasionally intercepts “illegal materials or equipment” such as infra-red cameras with night vision and military uniforms concealed in shipments. “Sometimes shelling closes down the crossing,” he added.

UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said that before Israel mounted its blockade of Gaza, more than 475 lorries were cleared daily. At that time, other crossings were also open: “Karem Shalom cannot handle essential supplies needed by Gaza’s 1.5 million people.”