As an aid to the besieged Gaza Strip; Egyptian food trucks crossed the Karem Salem Crossing, East of Rafah city in the south of Gaza, Wednesday morning.

The trucks carry flour, sugar, oil and rice as aid from to the Palestinian People, said the Egyptian Ambassador to the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza Strip turns to food rationing due to Israeli closure

Despite re-opening two trade crossings for import of food and medicine for short periods Tuesday and Wednesday, Israeli closure over the Palestinian Gaza Strip remains complete and ongoing, continuing a severe food crisis for the 1.2 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the most crowded place on earth.

Widespread bread rationing has been introduced in the Gaza Strip because Israel has cut off deliveries of flour and other foodstuffs to the Palestinian territory for most of the past two months.

The military reopened the main cargo crossing into Gaza yesterday under US pressure to allow in humanitarian supplies, but the United Nations (UN) said the terminal was working at only a fraction of capacity. The Israelis say that the closure has been forced by security warnings but the Palestinians accuse them of using the crossing as a political tool after the Hamas election victory, and in breach of pledges to the US.

"The bakeries are rationing bread," said John Ging, director of UN operations in Gaza. "People queue and they’re given a coupon and a rationed amount … The shelves are quite empty. There’s no sugar, oil, milk, the basics. The shops are really depleted on those essential items."

"The impact is completely inadequate. It’s not going to meet the needs of the population."

Ging said the priority for his agency was fuel but said the availability of basic foodstuffs had deteriorated further since Sunday when he issued a grim warning that Gaza was now dangerously short of bread, sugar and oil.

"The UN has no fuel since Friday… The situation in the street is worse than Sunday."

Ging said he hoped the situation would improve but added that the United Nations considered "unacceptable" Israel’s repeated closures of the central Gaza Strip crossing which has been shut for much of the year.

"I’m optimistic but my message is clear: that’s not enough," he said.

"This policy is not acceptable. I’m not going to accept that it is going to be a long-term policy."

The Palestinian deputy economy minister, Nasser Sarraj, said about two-thirds of Gaza bakeries had closed due to lack of flour, and many restaurants have shut. Fuel shortages have also contributed to sharply rising commodity prices.

On Monday, Israel allowed Karni crossing to open for less than an hour to permit deliveries of wheat, Coca-Cola and crisps. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Karni crossing was also opened for several hours, but only for import of goods – no export.  Before that the crossing was operating only intermittently for almost two months.

Mr Ging said yesterday’s deliveries of wheat were limited because the terminal was working at only 10% of capacity.

"This is the first time that bread has been rationed," he said. "Palestinians are very resilient people and they would always have their reserves. However, as the crossing has been closed for 60% of the time since January 1 this year, this is unprecedented. Last year the crossing was closed for 18% of the time."

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official responsible for liaising with the Palestinians on Karni, said the closures were entirely a matter of security.

"The shortage of basic foodstuffs was weighed against the terror threat, and the logical decision to open it for a limited amount of time was made with the hope the Palestinians will uphold their commitments," he told Israel radio.

But Palestinian officials and some Israeli analysts believe there is a political motive. Some have described the closures as a collective punishment of Palestinians for electing a Hamas government, and a means to pressure the new administration. Israel has also used the closure of Karni to pressure Palestinians to use the cargo crossing at Kerem Shalom, near the Egyptian border. Palestinian officials resisted because they say it is a part of a ploy by Israel to close Karni completely and isolate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.

The Palestinians relented at the weekend, due to pressure caused by both the food shortages and the Americans, who were also pressing Israel to open Karni. But Kerem Shalom cannot handle all deliveries. The US says the closures have cost Palestinian growers about $5 million.

A World Bank report this month said an accord brokered by the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to allow a much greater flow of goods and people from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank had collapsed. The World Bank said at no time did Israel allow the number of trucks it had agreed to through the Karni crossing, nor did Israeli authorities fulfill a pledge to allow bus convoys to move more freely.

We appreciate all the security considerations, said Mr Ging: "However, there is a bigger consideration now … people are running out of food."