A European Union (EU) delegation has visited Gaza to get a fresh perspective on food shortages following the Israeli closure of a critical checkpoint.
The delegation, consisting of 16 heads of mission, visited the al-Mintar (Karni) commercial crossing, Gaza’s largest flour mill, and a greenhouse project where several tonnes of cherry tomatoes and sweet peppers had gone to waste.
Though Israel re-opened al-Mintar crossing after an emergency meeting last week brokered by American representatives, experts and UN officials say it is still functioning well below full capacity, and that not enough goods are being allowed in or out.
David Shearer, head of the UN’s office for the coordinator of humanitarian affairs, told Aljazeera.net: "So many heads of mission were concerned about the situation in Gaza that they came down to look at it themselves and were able to see Karni still functioning at a fraction of its full capacity and the produce that has gone to waste because it was unable to be exported out of Karni."
Mustafa Shurrab, head of al-Matahen, Gaza’s largest mill, said it was still not working at full capacity because most grain stores have been depleted and not enough wheat has been imported to re-stock.
"Our storage facilities have been empty since February," he said.
"Currently, the 250 tonnes that we get are being used the same day. I can’t store any wheat because we are barely getting enough as it is. Yet, I have wheat waiting for me inside Israel that I cannot import."
According to the Ministry of Economy, Palestinians in Gaza consume about 350 tonnes of flour a day.
"We need them to open the crossing for longer and on a more consistent basis in order to avert another food shortage," Shurrab said.
"If Karni closes again tomorrow, we will have the same problem. The solution they reached last week is just a temporary measure."
The al-Mintar crossing is Gaza’s commercial lifeline, the only point through which the large-scale import of wheat and other goods can take place. The crossing has been closed for nearly 50 days this year, a total of 60% of the time, according to the UN.
Leonard Moll, the Austrian ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, whose country is presently holding the EU chair, expressed his concern, saying the delegates wanted to show their support and relay the information to their capitals.
"We learned that since January, Karni was open for a total of a few weeks. And though it has been re-opened, only four out of 34 silos are working. So currently there is a working capacity of only 10%. The situation is very serious and that is why we have come to see it for ourselves," Moll said.
Moll said he and the other EU heads of missions are still waiting for directives on how to deal with the new Hamas government, which was sworn in earlier on Wednesday.
Frans Makken, the Dutch head of mission to the Palestinian Authority, said: "We are trying to visualise things that we are talking about all the time.
"There is a lot of talk about Karni being closed because of the security situation, which has been taken care of on the Palestinian side.
"If indeed there is very little export and import, the greenhouses will suffer. They’ve missed the top season which is a real loss and may lose productivity for next season.
"What we hope is for Palestinians to earn a living – that is the most important thing."
The delegates toured a greenhouse project run by the Palestine Economic Development Company, where crates of spoiled tomatoes that Palestinians were unable to export had been dumped in a nearby landfill.
Ayed Abu Ramadan, executive manager, said the project had suffered $6.5 million in direct and indirect losses, adding that even as the season comes to a close, they still have a surplus of produce in the market.
"Only one-third of our full capacity is being allowed out when the crossing is fully open. The situation is very bad to put it simply," said Abu Ramadan.
Palestinian officials have expressed their concern about the seemingly arbitrary nature of the Israeli decision-making process regarding the closures and the impact on Gaza’s population and economy.
Abu Ramadan, walking alongside rows of vine-ripe cherry tomatoes marked for export to the European market, said: "We cannot depend on Karni.
"The current allowances are not enough. And we never know when they will allow the trucks in and when they won’t.
"We have to prepare ourselves. Today we had 60 trucks ready to go and they were supposed to open but they didn’t. It only takes a few days for the produce to rot.
"Due to the closure, we were unable to pick them [the vegetables] and they are ripening on the vine, not on their way there as they should.
"Unfortunately they are not a machine that can be turned on and off. Every day we have incremental losses and it is also harming the future productivity – the longer the fruit is on the plant, the more damage it does for future crops."
David Shearer, director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA), said al-Mintar needs uninterrupted and prolonged opening.
According to Shearer, only 20 to 25 trucks are being allowed out each day, a fraction of the 160 agreed in the American-brokered November agreement between Palestinian and Israelis.
"It’s not open at full capacity, and because of this, will take longer to build those stocks up. There has been some stocks built up, but they are not yet back to anywhere near where they were last year … they would have to be open for several more weeks for that to happen," he said.
Israeli officials have cited "security concerns" for the closure, specifically fears that tunnels had been built under the crossing.
Palestinians have rejected such claims, saying the closure is politically motivated. No tunnels have been found to date.