The people of Gaza were able to enjoy a few days of freedom last week, after demolition charges brought down the iron wall separating the impoverished Palestinian territory from Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands to burst out of the virtual prison into which Gaza has been transformed over the past few years–the terminal stage of four decades of Israeli occupation–and to shop for desperately needed supplies in Egyptian border towns.
Gaza’s doors are slowly closing again, however. Under mounting pressure from the United States and Israel, Egypt has dispatched additional border guards armed with water cannons and electric cattle prods to try to regain control. It has already cut off the flow of supplies crossing the Suez Canal to its own border towns. For now, in effect, Suez is the new border: even if Palestinians could get out of Gaza in search of new supplies, they would have to cross the desolate expanses of the Sinai Desert and cross the canal, on the other side of which they would find the regular Egyptian army (barred from most of Sinai as a condition of the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel) waiting for them.
Now that Gaza’s fleeting taste of freedom is beginning to fade, the grim reality facing the territory’s 1.5 million people is once again looming large. “After feeling imprisoned for so long, it has been a psychological relief for Gazans to know that there is a way out,” said John Ging, the local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). “But it does not resolve their crisis by any stretch of the imagination.”
Indeed, all the frenzied shopping in Egyptian border towns brought into Gaza a mere fraction of the food that UN and other relief agencies have been blocked by Israel from delivering to the people who depend on them for their very survival. As long as the border with Egypt is even partially open, Israel refuses to open its own borders with Gaza to anything other than the bare minimum of industrial fuel to keep the territory’s one power plant operating at a subsistence level, and a few trucks of other supplies a day.
UNRWA has almost depleted the stocks of emergency food aid it had previously built up in Gaza. Only thirty-two truckloads of goods have been allowed to enter Gaza since Israel imposed its total closure on January 18; 250 trucks were entering every day before last June, and even that was insufficient to meet the population’s needs.
On January 30 UNRWA warned that unless something changes, the daily ration that it will distribute on the 31st to 860,000 destitute refugees in Gaza will lack a protein component: the canned meat that is the only source of protein in the food parcels–which even under the best of circumstances contributes less than two-thirds of minimum daily nourishment–is being held up by Israel, and the stock of those cans inside Gaza has been exhausted. The World Food Program, which feeds another 340,000 people in Gaza, has brought in nine trucks of food aid in the past two weeks; in the seven months before that, it had been bringing in fifteen trucks a day.
Gazans have been ground into poverty by years of methodical Israeli restrictions and closures; 80 percent of the population now depends on food aid for day-to-day subsistence. With the aid, they were receiving “enough to survive, not to live,” as the International Red Cross put it. Without it, they will die.