At Egypt's Rafah border crossing, lines of hundreds of trucks carrying aid wait for weeks to enter Gaza, and a warehouse is full of goods rejected by Israeli inspectors, everything from water testing equipment to medical kits for delivering babies, two U.S. senators said Saturday after a visit to the border.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Jeff Merkley pointed to a cumbersome process that is slowing relief to the Palestinian population in the besieged territory — largely due to Israeli inspections of aid cargos, with seemingly arbitrary rejections of vital humanitarian equipment. The system to ensure that aid deliveries within Gaza don't get hit by Israeli forces is "totally broken," they said.
"What struck me yesterday was the miles of backed-up trucks. We couldn't count, but there were hundreds," Merkley said in a briefing with Van Hollen to a group of reporters in Cairo.
The U.S. has been pressing Israel for weeks to let greater amounts of food, water, fuel, medicine and other supplies into Gaza, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Dec. 22 calling for an immediate increase in deliveries. Three weeks ago, Israel opened its Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza, adding a second entry point for aid after Rafah.
Still, the rate of trucks entering has not risen significantly. This week, an average of around 120 trucks a day entered through Rafah and Kerem Shalom, according to U.N. figures, far below the 500 trucks of goods going in daily before the war and far below what aid groups say is needed.
Other than the trickle of aid through the crossings, Israel has barred the entry of supplies since its assault on Gaza began three months ago, aiming to destroy Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
The result has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the territory's 2.3 million Palestinians.
Almost the entire population depends on the trucks coming across the border for their survival. One in four Palestinians in Gaza is starving, and the rest face crisis levels of hunger, according to the U.N. More than 85% of Gaza’s people have been driven from their homes by Israeli bombardment and ground offensives. Most live in U.N. shelters crowded many times beyond their capacity, in tent camps that have sprung up or on the streets. The few functioning hospitals are overwhelmed with wounded and patients amid outbreaks of disease, as sanitation systems have collapsed.
Van Hollen and Merkley said a more simplified process for getting aid into Gaza is necessary. During a three-day visit to Egypt, they met with Egyptian officials, U.N. aid agencies and non-governmental relief groups working in Gaza. At Rafah on Friday, they also spoke to doctors who had come out of Gaza and a truck driver waiting to get in.
Trucks carrying aid cargos can wait for weeks at the border for their turn to be processed, they said they were told by aid officials. They enter the Egyptian side of the border, drive along no-man's land to the Israeli facility at Nitzana for inspection by the military, then return to Rafah to cross into Gaza — or go to Kerem Shalom for inspection and entry there.
Kerem Shalom operates eight hours a day, and both it and Nitzana close part of Friday and all Saturday. "This, in a 24-hour-a day" humanitarian crisis, Van Hollen said.
Israel says the inspections are necessary to prevent items of military use from reaching Hamas.
During the process, cargos are unloaded and reloaded several times. If inspectors reject a single item in a truck, it must return with its entire cargo to be re-packaged, starting the weeks-long process all over again, said Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland.
The reasons for rejection are often "very vague, and they are conveyed informally. Sometimes they were very unreasonable," said Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.
The two senators said they saw a warehouse in Rafah filled with material that had been rejected in inspection. It included oxygen cylinders, gas-powered generators, tents and medical kits used in delivering babies.
Aid workers told the senators the tents were refused because they included metal poles, and the medical kits because they included scalpels. Most solar-powered equipment appears to be barred — though it is vital in Gaza, where central electricity has collapsed and fuel for generators is in short supply.
"The warehouse was a testament to the arbitrariness" of the process, Van Hollen said.
There is a process for pre-approving cargos, but it can take weeks, they said, and even items that obtained prior approval are sometimes rejected during inspection. After inspection, trucks are considered “sanitized” and their drivers are not allowed to interact with anyone; the senators said they were told one truck driver was turned back after someone brought him a cup of coffee, violating the rule.
The process is "completely incompatible" with a humanitarian crisis of this extent, Merkley said. "There has to be a simplified process" that honors Israel’s concerns over potential military uses of goods but also addresses the scale of the situation, he said.
The senators, who both sit on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said they were drawing up recommendations for changes.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem this week, Col. Elad Goren, a senior official in the Israeli military body overseeing Palestinian civilian affairs known as COGAT, admitted that Israeli security checks could be hampering rapid aid delivery but largely blamed the bottlenecks on international agencies and the United Nations.
Asked about certain forms of medical equipment not being allowed in, he said, "I want to make it clear we are not refusing anything that is underneath four headlines … Food, water, medical supplies and shelters."
Goren said the U.N. should increase manpower and workers’ hours and deploy more trucks to deliver aid. He maintained the humanitarian situation in Gaza was under control and there was sufficient food. Officials at COGAT did not respond to Associated Press requests for comment on the senators' briefing.
Van Hollen and Merkley said U.N. and other aid workers described extensive problems in distributing aid. They must ration the small amount of fuel Israel allows to enter Gaza between hospitals, bakeries and aid trucks. Frequent collapses of the communications system — or simple inability to recharge phone batteries — makes contact and coordination with aid teams impossible.
Arranging safe passage for aid deliveries is an enormous challenge, they said. "Nothing about deconfliction is working," Merkley said. Aid groups inform the Israeli military of their movements but even once they have assurances an area is safe, it sometimes gets struck.
"No place really becomes deconflicted," Merkley said. "It is not safe for them to move."
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