Commercial goods trucked into Gaza as Israel and UN trade blame for logjams

With Kerem Shalom bearing brunt of burden from Rafah crossing’s closure, COGAT says private sector working better than aid groups, as UNRWA decries ‘prioritization’ of markets

Palestinians walk with water and food through a heavily damaged residential district of the Gaza Strip's southern city of Khan Younis, July 5, 2024. (Bashar Taleb / AFP)
Palestinians walk with water and food through a heavily damaged residential district of the Gaza Strip's southern city of Khan Younis, July 5, 2024. (Bashar Taleb / AFP)

As bombs sound from Gaza, just across the border in southern Israel, truck driver Itzik waits in a barbed wire-protected parking lot for his delivery to clear inspection into the war-devastated territory.

His truck is loaded with Gaza-bound eggs, chicken, sesame, spices, tea and coffee, all destined for private markets that Palestinians and humanitarian workers describe as unaffordable.

Aid, meanwhile, languishes on the other side of the Kerem Shalom crossing, with Israel and the United Nations trading blame for the logjam, and Gazans suffering from the resulting shortages.

Itzik, who declined to give his last name, said that lately his cargo “mostly comes from the private sector.”

He described a booming industry that keeps him running the route despite being branded a “traitor” to the Israeli war effort, and despite efforts by right-wing activists to disrupt truck shipments to Gaza in order to pressure the Hamas terror group to release the 120 hostages it is holding.

Israel says it lets in enough food to feed the entire Gazan population of 2.4 million. It accuses the United Nations of not effectively distributing aid stacked up on the other side of the checkpoint.

A truck carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip crosses the Kerem Shalom border crossing between southern Israel and Gaza, May 30, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The UN claims it is unable to distribute the aid due to “insecurity, damaged roads, the breakdown of law and order, and access limitations” that hamper aid movement from Kerem Shalom to central Gaza.

Philippe Lazzarini, who heads UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, in May regretted that the private sector, though welcome, was “being prioritized” at Kerem Shalom.

The crossing has become the primary conduit for goods into Rafah since early May, when Israeli troops seized the nearby Rafah crossing with Egypt as they began ground operations against Hamas in the area. Egypt has refused to let aid through Rafah Crossing ever since.

Other crossings include the Western and Eastern Erez crossings, opened in Gaza’s north in May along with the existing Erez Crossing, which was closed for seven months after being damaged in the Hamas attack. Another crossing is Gate 96, the military’s entrance to central Gaza’s Netzarim Corridor, used for the first time for aid deliveries in March.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Kerem Shalom, in the Strip’s south, is mostly being used to pump commercial supplies into the territory.

“Right now, the private sector is working better than the aid organizations,” said Shimi Zuaretz, a spokesperson for COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry body overseeing Palestinian civilian affairs.

COGAT took journalists on a tour of the checkpoint on Wednesday, displaying crates stuffed with watermelons, cherries, tomatoes, oranges, potatoes and pulses.

Heaving open the gates of the remote desert compound, they allowed a parade of a dozen or so trucks to enter and load up the goods before departing for Gaza.

AFP was prevented from speaking to the Palestinian drivers by the Israeli soldiers leading the tour.

A boy pushes a cart loaded with boxes of canned food in Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on July 2, 2024. (Bashar Taleb / AFP)


Funneling supplies into Gaza was difficult even before the war, which began with Hamas’s thousands-strong October 7 attack on southern Israel that left nearly 1,200 people dead and saw 251 taken hostage — 116 of whom remain in Gaza, not all of them alive, in addition to two civilians and two bodies of soldiers held by Hamas in the Strip for a decade.

Israel then launched the still-ongoing offensive, aimed at toppling Hamas and returning the hostages. Over 38,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to unverified figures by the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry. The figure does not distinguish between civilians and fighters. Israel says it has killed some 15,000 combatants in Gaza, in addition to about 1,000 killed inside Israel during the October 7 attacks.

After initially blocking all deliveries into Gaza, Israel reopened Kerem Shalom in December under international pressure.

A bundle of humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip with the logo of World Central Kitchen (WCK) on a truck at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Israel, on May 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

An average of 250 trucks now cross the checkpoint daily, according to COGAT, still well below the UN’s figure of 500 aid and commercial trucks before the war.

UN rights experts accused Israel on Tuesday of a “targeted starvation campaign” in Gaza, where they said 34 Palestinians have died of malnutrition since October. Israel rejected the charge, and Elad Goren, of COGAT, countered that “the UN are not doing their job” distributing aid.

In the meantime, he said, “the private sector continues to work.”

Earlier in the war, the commercial pipelines dried up, leaving markets bare and a population dependent on aid, according to Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA.

Now, she said, the prioritization of the private sector over the humanitarian has sown “chaos” between Palestinians with and without cash.

Palestinians buy food at a local market next to a residential building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza Strip, March 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

In Gaza, where everything is in short supply, profiteering is rife. Eggs now cost 120 shekels ($33), a box of baby formula 70 shekels ($19) and a packet of shampoo roughly 95 shekels ($26), the Norwegian Refugee Council said this week.

Those without money give what they have. In a territory where nearly the entire population has been displaced, that can mean the clothes or the jewelry they wear.

“To pump commercial supplies into Gaza this late in the war is a terrible idea,” said Touma. “Gaza needs both commercial and humanitarian supplies, as it had before the war.”

Desperation has fueled a steady trade, with drivers to Kerem Shalom kept busy.

“I have worked as a driver here for more than 20 years,” Itzik said. “I know my Gazan colleagues. I feel sorry for what is happening there.”

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