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Humanitarian Aid: Reaching Gaza's Poor?

Another day, another 3-hour ceasefire to let Gaza residents collect supplies. But how much reaches the poor, and how much is taken by terrorists?
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 1/13/2009, 10:33 AM

Israel News Photo: IDF Spokesperson

The IDF announced early Tuesday morning that it would hold its fire from 09:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon for the three-hour daily humanitarian ceasefire period in which Gaza residents come out to stock up on free food and medical supplies.

The full shipment of 100 truckloads of humanitarian supplies is expected to make its way through the Kerem Shalom Crossings, according to IDF Major Peter Lerner, spokesman for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

However, there appears to be a real question as to how many of those supplies are actually getting to the residents once they arrive in Gaza.

“We have had some reports of terrorists looting supplies, yes,” Lerner told Israel National News, “both complaints from the international aid organizations and also some aerial footage of some of the incidents.”

Several aid organizations, including UNRWA and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have told the IDF that Hamas terrorists are looting supplies from the humanitarian aid intended for Gaza’s poor, Lerner confirmed.

Due to an attempt to smuggle electronics, including night vision surveillance cameras, four trucks of supplies were turned back on Monday, when 3,129 tons of supplies were delivered to the region, said Lerner. It was the largest delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza since Operation Cast Lead began.

“Despite this cynical attempt to abuse the humanitarian platform one truck of electronic supplies intended to rehabilitate the electrical network was transferred,” he said.

According to Lerner, the commodities were brought in on 120 trucks and included supplies for UNRWA, the World Food Program, UNICEF, a large Jordanian donation and goods for the private sector.

Since the beginning of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, 22,046 tons of humanitarian aid, delivered by 926 trucks, have been shipped into Gaza.

U.S. Agencies Deny Supplies Stolen
Although it is common knowledge in the region that Hamas terrorists have long exacted a “toll” by skimming off a percentage of every humanitarian aid shipment that arrives in Gaza, international aid agencies continue to deny the phenomenon exists.

The issue was one of several addressed in a special U.S. State Department media briefing on January 9 in Washington DC with representatives of U.S. agencies handling humanitarian aid initiatives in Gaza.

Howard Sumka, the Tel Aviv-based head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, spoke via satellite hook-up from Tel Aviv.

Elizabeth Hopkins, U.S. State Department Director for Asia and the Near East Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration met with reporters in Washington. Her agency is responsible for the U.S. contribution to UNRWA.

Sumka outright denied that Gaza terrorists had any access to supplies trucked in from Israel, despite not having any way to independently confirm the assertion.

“[As regards] the issue of siphoning off, we maintain [that] through our partner that distributes the food, which in this case is CHF International, they [keep] control of the food from the time it gets into Gaza. Once they’ve picked it up from UNRWA it goes to their warehouses which are secure and under their control, and then it’s distributed by them,” Sumka said.

Hopkins stepped in to add, “And we don’t have any specific concerns about UNRWA assistance being siphoned either.”

But Sumka told reporters that his own people are not involved in the actual distribution of supplies, thus entrusting the entire operation to local residents who themselves are vulnerable to threats and attacks by Hamas terrorists.

“We have signed grant agreements with six nongovernmental organizations that we’ve worked with before in both the West Bank and Gaza,” he explained. “These six organizations have presence on the ground in Gaza, have a capacity to distribute commodities to people, and will be working with us both to procure and distribute. And so the mechanism will be that they will procure, the commodities will be turned over to UNRWA, they will take them into Gaza. And once they’re in Gaza, the participating NGO will do the distributions for us.”

He added that USAID is “relying exclusively on UNRWA to be our shipping vehicle from east Jerusalem, from where we’re purchasing things, to the crossings into Gaza and into the distribution points in Gaza.”

U.S. Citizens, Items ‘Not Present’ in Gaza
Sumka noted that no U.S. personnel are actually present in Gaza to oversee the distribution of their humanitarian supplies, despite the mammoth contribution of American funds.

“We don’t have any USAID employees, with the exception of one local Gazan, actually able to be in Gaza. And so the rest of us are receiving information through the same channels that everyone else is.

“We hear reports from the UN, from both UNRWA and OCHA. We get some reports from the World Food Program but, by and large, we don’t have an on-the-ground presence in Gaza itself,” he said.

Moreover, he said, most of the commodities donated by the United States are not identified or marked in any way that would enable Gaza residents to know where they came from.

"Why?" asked one reporter.

“To be perfectly honest with you,” he told the journalist, “we have received word from some of our NGOs that branded supplies – USAID-branded supplies – might not be so welcome. And so, for example, the blankets which we are bringing in through OFDA will, in fact, not be branded, just to make sure we don’t have any security issues.”

Sumka noted bluntly, “We have not gone into Gaza since October of 2003 when an American convoy was hit by an IED and three Americans were killed. We manage our Gaza programs with a staff of about – or it used to be a staff of about a half a dozen Gazan employees and with contractors and grantees who are actually doing the work for us, who have an on-the-ground presence.

“All of what we do there is managed by Gazans and by the contractors and grantees. Right now, I have no expectation of being able to go into Gaza, myself or other U.S. Government employees, anytime soon,” Sumka said.