Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has relayed messages to Israel in the past week expressing anger at obstacles Israel is placing to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. A leading political source in Jerusalem noted that senior Clinton aides have made it clear that the matter will be central to Clinton's planned visit to Israel next Tuesday.
Ahead of Clinton's visit, special U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to issue a sharply worded protest on the same matter when he arrives here Thursday.
"Israel is not making enough effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," senior U.S. officials told Israeli counterparts last week, and reiterated Washington's view by saying that "the U.S. expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter."
Two weeks ago, four senior European Union officials sent a letter to the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and Yitzhak Herzog, the minister charged with humanitarian aid transfers to the Gaza Strip, protesting delays in the flow of aid through the crossings into Gaza. The officials also demanded that Israel formulates a clear policy on this issue.
In response, Israel explained that the delay stems, in part, from the uncertainty regarding the fate of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, but also stressed that efforts are being made to improve the situation.
Herzog also asked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to hold a meeting in order to revaluate current policy on the delivery of aid to Gaza.
Sources at the defense establishment confirmed last night that pressure is increasing on Israel to reopen the crossings to larger volumes of aid for the Gaza Strip. Defense sources said that Israel will find it increasingly difficult to counter the pressure, and may agree to more extensive use of the crossings for aid. Currently, fewer than 200 trucks carrying aid are allowed through daily. The U.S., the EU and the UN are demanding that at least 500 trucks carrying aid be allowed into the Strip daily.
Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, who heads the diplomatic-security bureau at the Defense Ministry, issued a statement yesterday denying European Union reports on the breadth of humanitarian aid being allowed to enter Gaza. "Contrary to EU reports, 116,400 tons of humanitarian aid was allowed into the Gaza Strip according to requests made by international organizations and private groups since the cease-fire went into effect on January 18. Any claim of food shortage [in Gaza] is false."
However, an incident occured last week at a crossing into the Gaza Strip that gave a very different impression to a senior observer. When Senator John Kerry visited the Strip, he learned that many trucks loaded with pasta were not permitted in. When the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee inquired as to the reason for the delay, he was told by United Nations aid officials that "Israel does not define pasta as part of humanitarian aid - only rice shipments."
Kerry asked Barak about the logic behind this restriction, and only after the senior U.S. official's intervention did the defense minister allow the pasta into the Strip. The U.S. senator updated colleagues at the Senate and other senior officials in Washington of the details of his visit.
The issue of humanitarian aid is central to a major debate between Israel's foreign and defense ministries. The former supports broadening the amount and types of aid, while the defense ministry opposes anything it considers "concessions" to Hamas.
A senior source dealing with humanitarian aid issues on the Israeli side said that Gilad has prepared a list of "humanitarian aid items" and refuses to broaden it. "Authority is in the hands of one person, and he is not willing to help," the source said. "This is outrageous. Why should a senior American official issue a protest on pasta in order for us to recognize that we need to allow it into the Gaza Strip?"
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources warned last night that the American plan for a $900 million in reconstruction aid for the Gaza Strip will not have an effect without a cease-fire agreement with Israel. As long as Israel refuses to allow the transfer of iron and cement into the Strip, the sources said, it will be impossible to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure. The same sources also expressed skepticism at the value of Clinton's scheduled visit, saying that without a government that can be pressured into making substantive concessions to the Palestinian Authority, the visit is void of meaning.