Israel blocks pasta shipment to Gaza, and tensions boil

JERUSALEM — For more than seven weeks, the international aid group Mercy Corps has been trying to send 90 tons of macaroni to the isolated Gaza Strip as part of a global campaign to help the 1.4 million Palestinians there rebuild their lives after Israel's recent devastating 22-day military operation.

Israel, which controls most of what goes into and out of Gaza, has said no repeatedly.

At first, Israeli officials said that they wanted to make sure that the macaroni wasn't destined for a Hamas charity. Then they said macaroni was banned because they didn't consider it an essential food item.

On Wednesday, days after American lawmakers raised pointed questions about the macaroni ban, Israeli authorities said that they were preparing to give the pasta a green light.

For the international aid community, the dispute is emblematic of the red tape and political maneuvering that have stymied efforts to rebuild Gaza.

"We're at the end of our rope," said David Holdridge, the head of Middle East emergency relief efforts for Mercy Corps. "This is just ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd."

The Israeli restrictions are expected to be a central issue in the coming days when George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's new Middle East special envoy, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive in the region for discussions about how to help Gaza without strengthening Hamas, its hard-line Islamist ruler.

"Aid should never be used as a political weapon," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday in Washington. "We'll try to push to get into Gaza as many supplies as possible."

The macaroni standoff drew the attention of U.S. lawmakers who made a rare trip last week to the Gaza Strip.

"Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?" Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington state Democrat who joined Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison in visiting Gaza, reportedly said after hearing about the aid restrictions.

Along with macaroni, Israel has prevented aid groups that are helping Gaza from sending in everything from paper and crayons to tomato paste and lentils.

As international donors prepare to meet next week in Egypt to discuss a massive, coordinated global rebuilding initiative, Israel is making it clear that it will block any projects that could help Hamas.

Israeli objections are expected to prevent Gaza's residents from reconstructing all the major government buildings that Israeli strikes destroyed, including the Palestinian Authority Gaza City parliament building, the presidential compound on the Mediterranean coast and police stations.

"We want to make sure that reconstruction for the people of Gaza is not reconstruction for the Hamas regime," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Ever since Hamas seized military control of Gaza in 2007 — by ousting forces loyal to pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — after it swept parliamentary elections the year before, Israel has effectively frozen most international development work by preventing most building materials from getting into Gaza.

Israel's latest military campaign in Gaza caused an estimated $2 billion in damage. Palestinian Authority officials estimate that 4,000 homes were destroyed and another 17,000 were damaged.

At the upcoming donor conference, the major players are expected to confront the difficult question of how to rebuild Gaza while sidelining Hamas.

Abbas' allies are floating a plan to channel money directly to the thousands of Gazans who lost their homes. So long as Hamas and Abbas remain at odds, Gaza's rulers are likely to resist any rebuilding plans that they see as undermining their power.

Egypt is trying to broker a new round of talks to reunite Abbas and Hamas, but there are few signs that the two sides are prepared to set aside their differences quickly and reconcile. Also, so long as Hamas refuses to renounce its stated goal of destroying Israel, it's likely to continue to face international isolation.

Beyond rebuilding Gazan homes, it isn't clear what will be done to reconstruct the dozens of factories and businesses that Israeli strikes destroyed.

Israel also is concerned that Hamas will seize aid coming into Gaza, as the group did earlier this month, when it took thousands of blankets and hundreds of food packages from a United Nations warehouse in Gaza.

Hamas returned the goods after the United Nations refugee agency suspended deliveries of aid in Gaza, but the incident remains a concern for the United Nations and aid groups who are working there.

Each day, Israeli and United Nations officials sit down together in an office in Tel Aviv, Israel, to debate what the most important things are to let into Gaza: tents for the thousands of Palestinians who don't have homes now or glass to replace the windows that the Israeli attacks shattered? Should shoes take priority over first aid kits? Is it more important to bring in diapers or shovels?

"We're at the stage now where, for all of us in the humanitarian aid community, this is an unacceptable process," said Charles Clayton, the head of the Association of International Development Agencies, an umbrella organization that represents 75 groups. "It's not the details, it's the entire process which is unacceptable."


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