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Home > News & Analysis > Fact Sheets
Fact-checking the State Department on Gaza aid channels and the Israeli naval blockade
IMEU, Jun 27, 2011

Fact-checking the State Department on Gaza aid channels:

In urging human rights advocates not to sail to Gaza in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade, the US State Department said Friday that humanitarian aid to Gaza should flow through what it called "legitimate channels."

Asked at a press briefing what channels the US deems appropriate be used, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nunland said: "Well, the Rafah Crossing, as you know, is open again, and we have seen an uptick in the humanitarian aid that is going through there. There are also channels through Israel, and we've been relatively encouraged that the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza through these appropriate channels is improving."

In making this statement Ms. Nunland failed to address the primary rationale for the Gaza flotilla, which is to politically protest Israel's comprehensive blockade of the Gaza Strip, not to deliver humanitarian aid. In fact, the only cargo carried by the American vessel in the flotilla, the US Boat to Gaza, is a stack of letters from Americans to Palestinians in Gaza.

In addition to this apparent misunderstanding about the purpose of the flotilla, Ms. Nunland's remarks also grossly misrepresent the situation at Gaza's land border crossings. The amount of cargo entering Gaza through Israel remains far below pre-blockade levels, while the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing is equipped only for travelers and is simply not a cargo terminal.

Trickle of goods at Israeli crossings

United Nations figures show that activity at Gaza's Israeli-controlled cargo crossings remains at a fraction of pre-blockade levels.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between 5 and 18 June, a weekly average of 838 truckloads of goods entered Gaza. This figure represents only 30 percent of the weekly average of 2,807 truckloads that entered Gaza during the first five months of 2007, prior to Israel's imposition of the blockade.

On a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in May, the UN's top humanitarian official also noted, according a UN statement, "the blockade has resulted in a stifling of economic activity and a serious decline in education, healthcare and water and sanitation services."

Moreover, the official, Valerie Amos noted: "Consequently 1.1 million Gazans are dependent on food aid due to the Blockade. Civilians have been hit hardest by the impact of the policy of restrictions and have had to endure unnecessary humanitarian suffering."

Rafah partially open for travelers, not cargo

The Rafah crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is a passenger terminal and is not equipped to process large volumes of commercial or humanitarian cargo. Currently, any cargo that might pass through Rafah, other than passengers' personal luggage, is trucked to the nearby Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing for processing.

The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, in which Israel handed primary control of the crossing to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, also specified that goods passing through the crossing should be screened at Kerem Shalom under the supervision of Israeli customs agents. Rafah does not therefore represent a significant channel for the passage of goods outside the Israeli framework.

After remaining partially closed since June 2007, Egypt announced in May that it would reopen the crossing to permit Palestinians from Gaza to travel to and from the Strip. However, after the crossing was reopened on 28 May, Palestinian men between the ages of 18 and 40 and some 5,000 people on a blacklist still faced restrictions in entering Egypt.

On 4 June, following disputes over these operations at the crossing, Hamas authorities closed the crossing in protest until June 8. A registration system set up for Gaza residents wishing to travel has already been overwhelmed with tens of thousands of applications.

UN-OCHA reported that from 8 to 21 June a daily average of 400 to 450 people crossed through the Rafah crossing in both directions, figures well below the daily average of 650 people who crossed in the first five months of 2006, before the closure of the crossing.

Flotilla crossing international waters

While Israel has a right to defend its territorial waters, flotilla ships are sailing to Gaza through international waters and Gaza's coastal waters, and will not enter Israeli waters. Israel does not have the right to board ships in international water. The principle of freedom of navigation is enshrined in international law, including in the Convention on the High Seas and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and has attained the status of customary international law by which all states are bound. Under this principle, all states have the freedom to sail ships flying their flags on the high seas. Sovereignty over a ship is exclusive to the state whose flag the ship is flying. Any attempt to board the ship of another flag-state is therefore considered a breach of that state's sovereignty. Israel's boarding in international waters of previous humanitarian vessels to Gaza, or a boarding of the upcoming flotilla, are therefore violations of international law and would violate the sovereignty of the states to which the ships are flagged.

Blockade remains illegal

The State Department also failed to address the principal motivation for the flotilla, which is the illegality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. As an occupying power that exercises effective control over Gaza, Israel has legal obligations to the residents of the occupied territory under the Fourth Geneva Convention, including the general duty to protect civilians under its control, and the specific duty to allow adequate access to food and medical supplies. Israel's land and sea blockade violates these duties of protection by denying Gazan Palestinian civilians access to adequate amounts of the most basic food and medical supplies. Israel's violation of its duties ultimately amounts to the collective punishment of 1.5 million civilians, in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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