The United Nations has called on Israel to cancel all of its restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the Gaza Strip.
“The cumulative impact of Israel’s restrictions, some of which have been in place for more than a decade, has devastated the livelihoods of families in Gaza, such as the farmers and fishermen we met today,” said James Rawley, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Palestinian areas, during a visit to the Gaza Strip Wednesday. “These restrictions affect the poorest the most; they impede development of a sustainable economy and increase dependency on aid.”
Rawley was leading a mission of humanitarian agencies and international representatives to Gaza to meet with local fishermen and farmers to discuss the impact of Israeli restrictions.
The UN statement on Rawley’s visit said that residents of the Strip suffered due to limited access to 35 percent of its farmland and over two-thirds of its fishing grounds. The UN estimated those losses as $76 million (NIS 276 million) annually.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry brushed aside the criticism and laid the blame at the doorstep of the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip.
“As soon as Hamas reaches out to Israel and asks to sit with us to coordinate lifting the restrictions, we will be able to say what is possible and what is not,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel. “As long as Hamas continues to speak about Israel only as the target of rockets, speaking of lifting restrictions sounds particularly hollow.”
Also on Wednesday, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released its latest fact sheet (PDF) on the Gaza Strip in which it claimed that Israeli restrictions on Gaza undermine the living conditions of its 1.7 million residents. The report also alleged that Israel’s measures are part of its “policy of separation” between Gaza and the West Bank, denying Gazans access to work, family, and education.
Rawley did note that the situation has improved since the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel following Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, but stressed that “only a full lifting of restrictions on access, as well as on exports and transfers of produce, will enable recovery of the fishing and agricultural sectors and the livelihoods of those who depend upon them.”
Palmor rejected the OCHA’s allegations as one-sided.
“It’s been a long time since everyone understood that OCHA is betraying its own mission by only issuing Palestinian-based reports instead of fulfilling its humanitarian mission,” he said. “This is why OCHA reports are never taken seriously in New York, by anyone. They continue to waste good UN money on documents that do not reflect any reality other than that of Palestinians, actively ignoring any possible Israeli input, and willfully confronting Israel on any possible real or imaginary points.
“This attitude rightly brought them complete discredit within the UN apparatus and that’s why their reports are never taken as basis for debate or action by any serious body that aims to actually move things in the right direction.”
Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-mile (9.5 kilometers) limit on fishing grounds in the waters off Gaza after the November ceasefire. However, in March the IDF restricted Gaza fishermen to a three-mile limit after repeated rocket attacks on Israel from the Strip.
In May, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon restored the area available to Palestinian fishermen, who can again ply the waters up to six miles from the shore.
The UN statement also expressed concern that the economic situation in Gaza was forcing thousands of Palestinians, including children, to rely on goods smuggled via tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
Gaza uses the tunnels mainly for goods limited by Israel, including cement, gravel, iron rods and fuel. Most consumer products have been shipped through an Israeli cargo crossing since Israel eased its border restrictions three years ago.
Between 150 and 250 trucks pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing daily, providing fuel, essential medical supplies, and food to the residents of Gaza.
In normal times, about 70 tunnels are active — most for cargo, but some also for travelers evading Egyptian border controls. Tents or in some cases houses cover the openings on the Gaza side of the 14-kilometer border. Hamas levies customs on smuggled imports and has turned the tunnel zone into a closed, bonded area, with a line of checkpoints searching cargo trucks.
Last week, the Egyptian military cracked down on smuggling, severely disrupting the tunnel trade, causing a fuel shortage, doubling the price of building materials and shutting down some construction sites in the Hamas-ruled territory.
Rawley expressed understanding for Israel’s security concerns, noting that the UN has repeatedly condemned rocket fire toward Israel, but hinted that Israel’s responses were disproportionate.
“Any response to such concerns,” he underscored, “including limitations on the free movement of people and goods, must comply with international law; they must be proportionate to a specific threat and must not be punitive in nature.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.