“UNRWA: Israel’s Gaza blockade became a blockade against the UN” ran a Haaretz headline earlier in the week. It prompted reading the article and wanting to know more.
The quote was attributed to Reuters and the figure behind it was Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s Gaza spokesperson since 2006. Gunness is a highly visible figure, routinely quoted in print stories and seen often on television.
I decided to speak with Gunness to find out firsthand what he meant regarding the UN’s view that the blockade is somehow a personal impediment to his organization.
He started off by acknowledging Israel’s move to ease restrictions last week, calling it a step in the right direction — albeit small. The day the blockade was eased, he was quoted in the press as saying it was a “drop of water” in a large bucket. So this seemed a bit more forthcoming. He then explained the blaring Haaretz headline.
“After the Gaza War, a summit was held in Sharm and the international community pledged 4.5 billion dollars to reconstruct Gaza. It was the international community’s way of saying they would reconstruct and not ‘others,’” Gunness explained.
What has happened, he continued, is that because of Israel’s blockade, hardly any of the allocated funds have been spent since the blockade includes an embargo against construction materials. So the international community has been stopped from doing what it pledged to do because of the blockade.
“The Israeli strategy is to make the international community talk about a bag of cement here, a project there. We need full unfettered access through all the crossings,” he said in the Haaretz story, referring to Israel’s block against incoming cement the government fears terrorists will use to build a series of underground bunkers.
After speaking with Gunness, my Gaza sources confirmed that, indeed, the very people who are least concerned with Israel’s interests — Hamas — are rebuilding Gaza post-Cast Lead. In hundreds of factories across the strip, Hamas is collecting rubble, mashing it up, producing cement, and rebuilding.
But what of Israel’s concern that the cement will be used for building underground hideout bunkers for terrorists to retreat into post-rocket attacks?
“We were told for years that terrorists would steal the cement and build bunkers. For the past two months, UNRWA has had a deal in place with Israel to bring in cement. Terrorists are not stealing it or using it to build bunkers, so we have established a precedent: terrorists won’t take it. If you can do that for two months, you can do it for two years and so on,” Gunness countered.
The call for a complete blockade lift, however, runs contra to Israel’s need for safety guarantees against incoming weapons shipments via sea and arms smuggled through checkpoints.
Gunness first addresses the issue of crossing points — a bottleneck problem he sees as critical to easing the flow of goods.
“There are several crossing points from Israel to Gaza and the one we’re forced to use now — Kerem Shalom — is basically an open field and Palestinians on the Gaza side have clear views of (Israeli) truck drivers. We should be getting Israeli customs authorities to inspect shipments at Ashdod, and take goods to the Karni crossing. It’s industrial, like LAX, and security there is much better than at Kerem Shalom,” Gunness suggested.
This is because, according to Gunness, pallets have to be unloaded, inspected, put on Israeli trucks, unloaded again at the crossing, and re-loaded to Palestinian trucks — a time-consuming process.
As for the issue of keeping weapons from flowing by sea into Hamas’ hands, Gunness referred back to UNRWA’s “pilot” trial of importing cement to the strip and not having it fall into terrorists’ hands.
A diplomatic source referring to the sea blockade suggested that Israel inspect all incoming shipments at Ashdod’s port and subsequently escort vessels down the coast all the way to Gaza. “The navy could float down and watch them go through so you wouldn’t have a security issue whatsoever. It would be foolproof,” the source offered.
In light of Gunness’ bold suggestions, however, could Israel fully ease a blockade while at the same time implementing security measures that could guarantee safety?
Again, nothing is foolproof.