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As Gaza starves, Israeli protesters are blocking vital aid

'Not a teaspoon of sugar': As Gaza starves, Israeli protesters are blocking vital aid
6 min read
28 February, 2024
In-depth: For two months, Israelis have gathered at border crossings with Gaza to prevent supplies like food, fuel, water, and medicine from entering.

With the smell of caramel corn in the air and cotton candy in their hands, around 500 Israelis gathered at the Israeli Nitzana border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday to protest against sending aid into Gaza.

“You cannot expect the country to fight its enemy and feed it at the same time,” Rachel Touitou of Tzav 9, an Israeli movement formed in December to block aid to Gaza, told The New Arab. Tzav 8 refers to the alert code sent to Israeli army reservists when a draft is initiated.

Over the last two months, Israelis have gathered at Nitzana and Kerem Shalom - which borders Gaza and is roughly eight kilometres from Rafah - crossings to prevent supplies like food, fuel, water, and medicine, largely administered by the United Nations, from entering the besieged enclave.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Kerem Shalom is encountering closures because of these Israeli demonstrators. In January, the Israeli army declared the Kerem Shalom checkpoint a closed military zone, barring civilians from entering, due to the ongoing protests there and clashes with police.

Some protesters managed to reach Kerem Shalom through side roads but accessing it has become difficult in recent days so they’ve mostly resorted to Nitzana instead.

Protesters span a wide demographic - from religious to secular, young families, elderly couples, and even teenagers - but their ideology appears the same.

“There is some fraction of family members of hostages involved in these protests, but the majority of the people there are coming from the settler movement,” Eyal Lurie-Pardes, Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs fellow at the Middle East Institute, told TNA.

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Lurie-Pardes explained that the people who are blocking aid trucks with their bodies are often affiliated with the far-right Israeli Religious Zionism party led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, while the groups demanding the hostages’ return are connected to the Israeli centre-left and protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s judicial overhaul plans.

“The right-wing created this mirror effect with these protests that there are two supporting the hostages, but they're doing this while keeping a very militant, anti-Palestinian narrative of blocking the aid,” Lurie-Pardes said, adding there are two different protests blocking roads in Israel - the hostage families obstructing traffic on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and on the opposite end of the country, right-wing settlers obstructing aid.

As the protests grow in size, so does their support. While those on the frontlines may be from the far-right, the general Israeli public is in favour of their efforts. According to a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, 68% of Israeli Jews oppose transferring aid to Gaza.

Protesters span a wide demographic - from religious to secular, young families, elderly couples, and even teenagers - but their ideology appears the same. [TNA/Jessica Buxbaum]

As protesters wave Israeli flags in front of the soldiers patrolling the crossings, they say the army supports their efforts.

 “The military privately tell you that they love that we're here,” Michael Raskas, 55, a regular protester, said. “At the same time, they have a responsibility to do what they've got to do, so they tell you to stand over here, not over there.”

Israeli officials have voiced their opposition to aid as well, just as the government pins the prevention of assistance on protests. Following the Hamas attack in October, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a complete siege on Gaza.

“There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” Gallant said. “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also said aid should be halted.

“As long as Hamas does not release the hostages in its hands - the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not a gram of humanitarian aid,” he wrote on the social media platform X in October.

Earlier this month, Smotrich blocked flour shipments from entering Gaza in an attempt to stop it from reaching the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

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The number of aid trucks entering Gaza dropped by more than a third in the weeks following the International Court of Justice’s ruling mandating Israel “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian aid,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Humanitarian organisations working in Gaza have cited delays and denials at Israeli crossings and a lack of transparency regarding how trucks enter Gaza as severely impeding aid arrivals.

“The Israeli government clearly has no problem getting its bombs and ground forces to reach all parts of Gaza, so it should have no problem in ensuring that aid gets to all parts of Gaza,” Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, told TNA.

While those on the frontlines may be from the far-right, the general Israeli public is in favour of their efforts. [TNA/Jessica Buxbaum]

A parade to block aid to Gaza

At the carnival-esque demonstration this week protesters spouted the same statistic, echoing Israeli media and government officials.

“Seventy per cent of the aid that's going in there, including just the flour is going directly to Hamas,” protester Raskas said. “Provid[ing] them a teaspoon of sugar is excessive.”

UNRWA official Bill Deere has pushed back on this claim, saying “There’s no hijacking of our supplies by Hamas. The fact of the matter is … all of this is closely watched by both Israel and the United States from the moment it enters the Rafah border crossing or Kerem Shalom all the way to its delivery to people in need”.

As famine looms over Gaza, Raskas, sitting in a camping chair, said, “It's all Hamas' fault - 100 per cent. If a Palestinian dies, it's because Hamas started a war on October 7.”

At the demonstration, which resembled more of a picnic than a protest, children played football and participants joined in with singalongs.

“It's not happening in Ukraine right now. I assure you didn't happen ever in any war that the US fought in against ISIS or the Taliban, that we were going to be providing aid to our enemy while we're fighting them. It's incomprehensible and it's holding Israel up to a ridiculous, unfair standard,” Raskas said.

Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated to provide for the welfare of the occupied population, however. As protesters argue sending aid to the people their state is fighting is unprecedented, Lurie-Pardes explained what’s unprecedented is the protests themselves.

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“Israelis have become more right-wing, more militant, and more addicted to the level of control that they have over Palestinians’ daily life,” Lurie-Pardes said.

“This dynamic creates this unprecedented moment when people are protesting against humanitarian aid, which seems absurd for somebody that looks from the outside…But for the Israeli public, that's a tool they imagine they have.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum