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Aid Groups Worry US Aid to Gaza Won't Clear Israeli Blockade

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to move forward with $400 million in aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Some of this amount counts that which was promised at last year's international donor conference, that followed that followed Israel's military incursions into Gaza. But aid groups say because of Israeli border closings, aid may not reach those in need.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency - or UNRWA - is the largest aid provider in Gaza. The White House says UNRWA will receive $40 million to help pay for educational and health services; some of that money will also go into humanitarian efforts in the West Bank. The U.S. has also pledged an additional $10 million for the construction of five new UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says that the U.S. is his organization's biggest donor, and that UNRWA is very grateful. But there's a problem. That money may never get past the Israeli blockade.

"With this blockade against building materials, it seems hard to see how America's pledge of $10 million is going to make any difference unless, because of the close relationship between America and Israel, there's some kind of agreement that this $10 million for UNRWA schools in Gaza will go through," he said.

But Gunness says this has not been UNRWA's experience in the past. Last year, the United States contributed almost $270 million to the organization. "Virtually none of that has been spent Gaza is being reconstructed; it's being reconstructed by other people, which is precisely what the world did not want," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross tells a similar story. ICRC spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas says her organization helps provide health care, water and sanitation. She says her group faces frequent delays in getting supplies into Gaza, and some supplies are blocked entirely.

"It's difficult to say what the reasons are," said Krimitsas. "It has happened with spare parts for important medical equipment for hospitals. The one item that comes to my mind right now is electrodes for electrocardiograms, which have been blocked.

Tunnel economy

The border closures have forced Gaza to rely on goods smuggled through underground tunnels from Egypt. Yousef Munayyer, the Executive Director of the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, says 80 percent of the goods coming into Gaza are coming in through the tunnels - everything from food, to cars, to live cattle - all this at ridiculously high prices. In addition, Hamas charges shopkeepers and consumers an additional value-added tax. It seems everyone is getting rich but the Gazans themselves.

"Businessmen on the Egyptian side who are able to have an exclusive market of a million and a half people to which they can market products for a much higher price," said Munayyer. "There's a very shrewd economic profit-based interest system here at play and there are people on the Egyptian side and in the government of Gaza who are finding ways to benefit from this structure."

Because the tunnel economy is clandestine, it's difficult to estimate just how much money is being made. Unconfirmed rumors on the ground say Hamas is clearing hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

"And so much is available information from accounts on the ground in Gaza," said Munayyer. "All of this is contributing to an underground, sort of 'black' economy, which is very difficult for any of us to measure and gauge. We know that it really is a full-fledged industry.


If this is the case, then why bother with the closures at all? "It's a conundrum," says Jonathan Schanzer. He is Vice President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine. Schanzer says the point of the blockade is to prevent Hamas from increasing their arsenal.

"The Israelis have been loath to allow anything in that could be used to fabricate weapons that could be launched against the Israelis and that includes rockets or any kind of projectile," he said.

Schanzer admits that the blockade has worked to the advantage of Hamas but suggests that keeping Hamas thus sidelined may actually be in Israel's best interest. "If you begin to allow certain goods to come through, then that essentially frees up Hamas to bring in items of concern in greater quantities. Hamas can being to build up and become fatter from a military perspective," he said.

Schanzer says the only other option for Israeli would be for Hamas to relinquish its control of the Gaza Strip and allow for a new, unity government to control both Gaza and the West Bank.

In his announcement last week, U.S. President Obama said that Gazans deserve a better life and expanded opportunities. The big question is whether aid groups will actually be able to make this happen or will they end up re-pocketing the funds for use elsewhere.