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Only a fraction of required aid is reaching Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing due to stringent Israeli inspections, three months into a war that has killed more than 22,000 Palestinians and left hundreds of thousands facing famine.
Only about 120 lorries a day, out of a required 500 a day needed to enter the strip, are getting through, according to two US senators who visited the border on Saturday.
They said that warehouses near the border are filling with vital humanitarian aid due to the inspection delays.
Chris Van Hollen and Jeff Merkley found that Israeli inspections of aid lorries relied on a “totally broken” system that involved cargo being rejected based on “vague” and seemingly “arbitrary” findings.
Rejections are based in many cases on Israeli fears that items of aid could be “dual use” and benefit Hamas, but in reality, the senators said Israeli explanations were thin.
“What struck me yesterday was the miles of backed-up trucks. We couldn’t count, but there were hundreds,” Mr Merkley said in a briefing to a group of reporters in Cairo.
The US has been pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to accelerate aid deliveries. More than three weeks into the war, Mr Biden called Mr Netanyahu and urged Israel to “significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians immediately”.
The UN passed a resolution last month with US backing which, while falling short of calling for a ceasefire, urged a rapid increase in aid deliveries.
Three weeks ago, Israel opened its Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza, adding a second entry point for aid after Rafah. But the two US senators said aid was still less than 25 per cent of requirements.
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.
The result has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the territory's 2.3 million Palestinians.
Most displaced Gazans, many of whom have fled their homes more than once, live in UN 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.
Mr Van Hollen and Mr 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, UN 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 lorry driver waiting to get in.
Lorries carrying aid cargo 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.
During the process, if inspectors reject a single item in a lorry, it must return with its entire cargo to be repackaged, starting the weeks-long process all over again, said Mr 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 Mr 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.
“The warehouse was a testament to the arbitrariness” of the process, Mr Van Hollen said.
There is a process for preapproving 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 “sanitised” and their drivers are not allowed to interact with anyone; the senators said they were told one lorry 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, Mr Merkley said. “There has to be a simplified process” that honours Israel’s concerns over potential military uses of goods but also addresses the scale of the situation, he said.
The senators, who sit on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said they were drawing up recommendations for changes.