UNRWA suspends food distribution in Gaza

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) was forced to suspend its emergency and regular food distribution services in the Gaza Strip without warning on 18 December, due to the continued closure of all commercial and passenger border crossings.

Wheat supplies scheduled to arrive in Gaza on 9-10 December were unable to enter, and UNRWA had exhausted all stocks of flour in its warehouses due to the crisis.

“The food distribution programmes are suspended until further notice,” said UNRWA spokesperson Jamal Hamed in Gaza. “As soon as Israel allows us to import food we will resume.”

Some 750,000 refugees out of a population of 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza depend on food aid from UNRWA.

On average, the UN agency distributes food to about 20,000 refugees per day, including rice, cooking oil, flour, tinned meat and milk.

“UNRWA was able to import an average of 20 trucks of humanitarian assistance per day into Gaza last month, while a minimum of 50 are required to cover their basic assistance,” said Hamed.

Israel sealed commercial and passenger border crossings to Gaza on 4 November, when an Israeli military incursion into Gaza prompted Palestinian militants to resume daily rocket-fire into neighbouring Israeli towns. A five-month Egyptian-brokered ceasefire had been largely holding.

Israel has restricted imports into Gaza, including food, fuel, medical supplies and other basic necessities despite the truce, which calls on militants to halt rocket attacks in return for Israel easing its embargo on the territory.

Photo: IRIN
Naheda Ghabaien with three of her five children in her small kitchen in the family's two-room house in the Beach refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The family members, all registered refugees, have become dependant on UNRWA food aid (file photo)

Ceasefire set to end on 19 December

“The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel officially ends on 19 December,” said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum, adding: “We [Hamas] bear the responsibility of defending our people if Israel attacks”.

“Thousands in Gaza depend on the UN for basic assistance in Gaza. This will increase the burden on the Hamas government to provide for people,” said Hamas political leader Ghazi Hamad - though the government has no alternatives while the crossings are closed.

At a speech at Hamas’s 21st anniversary rally in Gaza City on 14 December, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh noted the US$55 million in emergency assistance the Hamas government had provided to 10,000 families, fishermen and students in 2008. However, “there is no official budget for 2009, and it will not be enough,” said Hamad.


The alternatives for the civilian population living in Gaza are grim.

It has been almost a month since greengrocer Mohammed Abu Amra received fruit and vegetables from Israel. He gets fruit via the tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border but the deliveries are sporadic and “the goods from Egypt cost double,” said Abu Amra.

Apples are shipped from China to Egypt, and then make their way to Gaza via tunnel.

“Vegetables are available in Gaza, but there is not enough and they lack preservatives,” said Abu Amra. He is making less than half the profit he was two years ago, before Hamas won the legislative council elections.