Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

UNRWA Official and American Activist Address Israel's Blockade of Gaza

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

UNRWA Official and American Activist Address Israel's Blockade of Gaza

Article excerpt

The Palestine Center in Washington, DC hosted a July 19 event addressing the Gaza blockade and the recent opening of the Rafah crossing. Matthew Reynolds, head representative with the United Nations Relief Works Agency's (UNRWA) Washington, DC office provided a brief overview of the agency, including data about the number of people benefitting from UNRWA's food programs, temporary shelters, education and health services. Contrary to what many believe, the camps are not actually run by UNRWA, Reynolds said. Rather, the political authorities run the camps, with UNRWA in charge of providing basic services. Describing Gaza's situation as dire, Reynolds said that improved life and economic growth depend "100 percent on lifting the blockade," which suffocates the economy, creates unemployment and isolates the Gazan population-half of which is under the age of 18, and 80 percent of which depend on foreign aid.

To enter Gaza and deliver aid, UNRWA uses only the official Israeli crossings at Erez in the north and Kerem Shalom in the south. The situation is "inconvenient," Reynolds said, as the Erez crossing is used primarily for staff and Kerem Shalom is too small to accommodate the building material and aid projects approved by Israel. Reynolds described UNRWA's relationship with the Israel Defense Forces as a "complicated but working relationship," noting that the technical problems that arise between the two parties are amplified by political disputes. On the issue of the Freedom Flotillas, Reynolds said "there would be no need for any of this if the blockade was lifted."

Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, a coalition of over 350 organizations working against Israeli occupation and toward a settlement of the conflict in accordance with international law, focused on the political implications of the Israeli blockade. He called the U.S. response to the recent Rafah opening "consistent and ambiguous," showing neither clear endorsement nor condemnation. It falls in line with the U.S.'s larger policy toward Israel's blockade of the 140-square-mile strip, he said.

The only pressure Washington puts on Israel, Ruebner said, is to ensure that the basic needs of Gazans are met. Noting that Israel has calculated exactly how many truckloads of food it takes to keep Gazans from starving, he cited Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli government official widely reported to have said, "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger. …

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