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Feeding Gaza: Traders run a gauntlet of bullets, bombs and bribes

July 4, 2024 at 3:40 pm

Aid trucks loaded with supplies For Gaza are queued in Al-Arish City after the border closed, on May 8, 2024 in Arish, Egypt. [Photo by Ali Moustafa/Getty Image]

Mohammed describes a delivery job from hell. “I get screwed on every shipment,” the Palestinian trader told Reuters. He said that he has to fork out more than $14,000 for each truck of food he brings into the besieged Gaza Strip to pay for sky-high transport costs, bribes to middlemen and protection from looters. That’s up from $1,500-$4,000 before the Israeli war began last October. “It’s barely worth my while,” he said, “but I need food, my neighbours need food, the whole of Gaza needs food.”

Mohammed said that he doesn’t like to do so, but he’s forced to hike the prices of some fresh food like dairy products, fruit and chicken to 10 times their normal value just to break even, although he knows that this puts them out of reach of many hungry Palestinians in Gaza.

He and 17 other people interviewed by Reuters, most of them traders and aid workers in Gaza with direct knowledge of the supply situation, described a chaotic system that often makes it too dangerous or costly for business owners to import food, even as aid agencies warn of the growing risk of famine.

Many of the people requested their full names to be withheld in order to speak freely about sensitive matters, with traders like Mohammed saying that they feared being blacklisted by the Israeli military for speaking out. The bulk of the money spent on importing food goes on ballooning transport costs, according to the people interviewed.

Drivers in Israel have increased their rates by as much as threefold because of attacks by Israeli protesters on trucks heading towards Gaza, they said. Cargoes also often have to wait for days, either near their departure points in the occupied West Bank or the Kerem Shalom border crossing from Israel into southern Gaza, where they have to be inspected by Israeli soldiers and approved to enter the enclave, driving up costs further.

Once the goods finally make it into Gaza, the sources told Reuters, the scariest part of the journey begins. Another trader, Hamuda, who imports pickled vegetables, poultry and dairy goods from the West Bank, said that he either pays off local criminal gangs or hires his own armed men to stand on top of the cargoes and ward off looters.

“It costs anywhere from $200 to $800 for this,” he explained. “It’s worth it for a cargo that can be worth up to $25,000.” He hires friends or relatives, and needs about 3-5 per truck.

Meanwhile, none of the private-sector goods have made it to northern Gaza, where aid agencies say hunger is most acute

This is because the Israeli army has closed that area off to their commercial deliveries, said all eight traders.

Two aid workers confirmed that the only food available in northern Gaza is aid, with no commercial goods for sale. The Israeli army didn’t comment on the availability of food for sale in the north, an area dominated by Gaza City and its environs.

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The army, which oversees coordination of aid in Gaza, claims that it allows enough food in from Israel and Egypt for the entire population. It acknowledged that aid agencies face “difficulties” in transporting food once it has entered through crossing points including Kerem Shalom, without specifying what the obstacles were. Distributing aid in Gaza is a “complex task given that it is an active war zone,” said a spokesperson.

Getting food to the Gaza Strip’s mostly displaced population of 2.3 million has been beset by bureaucracy and violence since war broke out on 7 October, when a cross-border Hamas incursion triggered the ongoing Israeli military offensive that has laid waste to the coastal territory and killed 38,000 Palestinians, and wounded 90,000 others. An estimated 10,000 Palestinians are missing, presumed dead, under the rubble of their homes and civilian infrastructure destroyed by Israel.

There are two main tracks for food entry: international aid, which is largely UN or UN-distributed supplies of non-perishables, like rice, flour and tinned goods, which has made up the bulk of imports during the war; and commercial deliveries, which include fresh produce important for warding off malnutrition.

Israeli occupation forces allowed commercial food deliveries from Israel and the occupied West Bank to resume in May after their assault on Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, a key gateway from Egypt, drastically reduced the flow of UN aid to the devastated Palestinian territory.

Reuters, which reported the commercial resumption, is also the first news outlet to detail the ensuing costs and chaos faced by Gazan traders that have impeded their efforts to import fresh food for sale in the enclave’s markets and shops.

Attacks on food trucks have surged since Israel launched its 7 May Rafah offensive

This has deepened the chaos in Gaza by scattering the 1.5 million people who had been sheltering in tent camps there, according to the traders and aid workers.

The UN supplies that are still getting through to Gaza, via Kerem Shalom or northern crossings, are far more vulnerable to criminal gangs because, unlike private businesses, UN agencies can’t pay for armed protection, according to six aid workers involved in coordinating food deliveries. One estimated that about 70 per cent of the food trucks were being attacked.

“We are confronted with a near total breakdown of law and order with truck drivers being regularly threatened or assaulted,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UN relief agency UNRWA, told Reuters. “Far too many trucks have been looted.”

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The difficulties faced by aid agencies mean that the commercial track has begun to make up a larger proportion of food entering Gaza, although the flow remains erratic, said the traders interviewed. They pointed out that private-sector supplies have comprised between 20 and 100 trucks a day — each carrying up to 20 tonnes of food — since the Rafah assault was launched. During this period, Israeli military data shows an average of 150 aid and commercial food trucks a day have entered in total.

That is well short of the 600 trucks a day that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) says is required to address the threat of famine. The commercial food coming in is also expensive, and scant replacement for international aid that has already been paid for by donor countries and organisations. said the six aid workers.

“Some items have increased at least 15-fold in cost,” said Majed Qishawi, of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Gaza. “Basic items… have disappeared from the market because of a severe drop in aid and commercial trucks arriving.”

Traders described a long and perilous process to deliver food from their suppliers in Israel and the West Bank to their intended destinations in Gaza, a 100-mile journey at most, with trouble looming long before goods reach the war-torn enclave. A number of Gaza-bound cargoes transported by Israeli drivers or by Palestinian drivers who have permission to work in Israel, were blocked or attacked by Israeli protesters in May in a spree of violence which prompted Washington to sanction one involved group with links to illegal Israeli settlers. The protesters claimed that they were preventing supplies from getting to Hamas.

“Israeli drivers in particular have hiked their transport prices because of the attacks, sometimes by three times,” said trader Samir. “A $1,000 trip can cost $3,000.” Cargoes then often get stuck in lines of trucks before they can enter Gaza, with long waits costing importers about $200 to $300 per day per truck, he added.

The delays are caused by a general backlog in getting food into Gaza, according to the 18 sources interviewed who also include Palestinian and Western officials. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the logjam at the Gaza border as Israel mostly bars journalists from Gaza and its crossing points.

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According to the traders and aid workers, for two weeks at the start of June the Israeli military suspended all entry for commercial goods while a backlog of humanitarian aid was cleared. One trader shared a text message from an Israeli military coordinator for supplies into Gaza on 9 June telling him that commercial flows were “on hold until further notice”, although Reuters couldn’t verify its authenticity. The commercial track opened up again around the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday which began on 15 June.

Once food cargoes are allowed to cross into Gaza, the goods are loaded onto different trucks with local drivers to be distributed to vendors in the enclave. They are now in a war zone.

Stretches of road in Rafah and the southern city of Khan Yunis that were considered relatively safe before the Rafah invasion are now notorious for attacks, the traders explained. Three of the aid workers said that truck lootings were a daily occurrence while Hamuda, the trader, estimated that about six times as many trucks are being ransacked now compared with before the Rafah assault.

Some trucks are attacked for cargoes carrying rarer commodities such as meat or fresh fruit, he said. Many others are attacked by gangs who have secretly arranged to smuggle other goods inside food deliveries, especially tobacco. One Gazan trader shared a photo of cigarettes smuggled inside a hollowed-out watermelon, although, again, Reuters couldn’t verify its authenticity.

Another obstacle is the ongoing Israeli military operations, according to the traders who said that they have no military official to contact in real time while their trucks are inside Gaza. If a road is closed by fighting or a bombardment, they have no way of figuring out a safe alternative, or relaying this information to their drivers who are often outside mobile phone coverage.

Three traders said that last month they began paying larger, better-connected local businessmen who have regular coordination with the Israeli military to secure the entry of their cargoes and protection for their trucks to their destinations. The traders, who declined to identify the middlemen, said that this service alone can cost up to $14,000 to get the goods to their destination safely.

One of the traders, Abu Mohammed, said that he had to weigh up how much he could sell his cargo for. “After hiking my prices to compensate for the transport costs, maybe I make a couple of hundred dollars. Maybe I break even.” He also risks losing everything. “If the shipment is ransacked, my money’s been wasted.”

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