Feeding Gaza: Traders face high costs to deliver basic supplies to war-torn enclave

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Mohammed describes a delivery job from hell.

“I get screwed on every shipment,” the Gazan trader told Reuters. He said he has to fork out more than $14,000 for each truck of food he brings into the besieged enclave to pay sky-high transport costs, bribes to middlemen and protection from looters. That’s up from $1,500-$4,000 before the war began in October.

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“It’s barely worth my while. But I need food, my neighbors need food, the whole of Gaza needs food.”

Mohammed said he doesn’t like it, but he’s forced to hike prices of some fresh food like dairy products, fruit and chicken to 10 times their normal value just to break even, though he knows this puts them out of reach of many hungry Gazans.

He and 17 other people interviewed by Reuters, most of them traders and aid workers in Gaza with direct knowledge of the supply situation, described a chaotic system that often makes it too dangerous or costly for business owners to import food, even as aid agencies warn of the growing risk of famine.

Many of the people requested their full names be withheld to speak freely about sensitive matters, with traders like Mohammed saying they feared reprisals by local gangs or being blacklisted by the Israeli military for speaking out.

The bulk of the money spent on importing food goes on ballooning trucking costs, according to the people interviewed.

Drivers in Israel have increased their rates by as much as threefold because of attacks by Israeli protesters on trucks heading towards Gaza, they said.

Cargoes also often have to wait for days, either near their departure points in the occupied West Bank or the Kerem Shalom border crossing from Israel into southern Gaza to be inspected by Israeli soldiers and approved to enter the enclave, they added, further driving up costs.

Once the goods finally make it into Gaza, the sources told Reuters, the hairiest part of the journey begins.

Another trader, Hamuda, who imports pickled vegetables, poultry and dairy goods from the West Bank, said he either pays off local criminal gangs or hires his own armed men to stand on top of the cargoes and ward off looters.

“It’s anywhere from $200 to $800 for this. It’s worth it for a cargo that can be worth up to $25,000,” he said. “The guys I hire are friends or relatives, I need about 3-5 per truck.”

Meanwhile, none of the private-sector goods have made it to northern Gaza, where aid agencies say hunger is most acute, because the Israeli military has closed that area off to their commercial deliveries, all eight traders said.

Two aid workers confirmed the only food available in northern Gaza is aid, with no commercial goods for sale. The Israeli military didn’t comment on the availability of food for sale in the north, an area dominated by Gaza City and its environs.

The military, which oversees coordination of aid in Gaza, says it lets enough food in from Israel and Egypt for the entire population. It acknowledged aid agencies face “difficulties” in transporting food once it has entered through crossing points including Kerem Shalom, without specifying what the obstacles were.

Distributing aid in Gaza is a “complex task given that it is an active war zone”, a spokesperson told Reuters. “Israel is committed to allowing humanitarian aid to enter Gaza for the benefit of the civilian population... it will facilitate it while adhering to operational considerations on the ground.”

The military said Palestinian militant group Hamas, Gaza’s ruling group, was exploiting “humanitarian infrastructure for its military needs,” without elaborating.

Hamas denied exploiting aid and said it doesn’t interfere with food deliveries. It confirmed that traders were hiring armed guards to protect their shipments but said none of those men were linked to Hamas.

“Our utmost goal is to alleviate the suffering of our people,” said Hamas government spokesperson Ismail al-Thawabta.

‘Total breakdown of law’

Getting food to the Gaza Strip’s mostly displaced population of 2.3 million has been beset by bureaucracy and violence since war broke out on Oct. 7, when a Hamas attack on towns in southern Israel triggered an Israeli bombardment and invasion that has laid waste to the coastal territory.

There are two main tracks of food entry: international aid, which is largely UN or UN-distributed supplies of non-perishables, like rice, flour and tinned goods and has made up the bulk of imports during the war; and commercial deliveries, which include fresh produce important to warding off malnutrition.

The Israeli military allowed commercial food deliveries from Israel and the occupied West Bank to resume in May after its assault on Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah - a key gateway from Egypt - drastically reduced the flow of UN aid to the devastated Palestinian territory.

Reuters, which reported the commercial resumption, is also the first news outlet to detail the ensuing costs and chaos faced by Gazan traders that have impeded their efforts to import fresh food for sale in the enclave’s markets and shops.

Attacks on food trucks have surged since Israel launched its May 7 Rafah offensive, which has deepened the chaos in Gaza by scattering the 1.5 million people who had been sheltering in tent camps there, according to the traders and aid workers.

The UN supplies that are still getting through to Gaza, via Kerem Shalom or northern crossings, are far more vulnerable to criminal gangs because, unlike private businesses, UN agencies can’t pay for armed protection, according to six aid workers involved in coordinating food deliveries. One estimated that about 70 percent of the food trucks were being attacked.

“We are confronted with a near total breakdown of law and order with truck drivers being regularly threatened or assaulted,” Philippe Lazzarini, head of UN relief agency UNRWA, told Reuters. “Far too many trucks have been looted.”

The difficulties faced by aid agencies mean the commercial track has begun to make up a larger proportion of food entering Gaza, though the flow remains erratic, according to the eight traders interviewed.

They said private-sector supplies has comprised between 20 and 100 trucks a day - each carrying up to 20 tonnes of food - since the Rafah assault was launched. During this period, Israeli military data shows an average of 150 aid and commercial food trucks a day have entered in total.

That is well short of the 600 trucks a day that the US Agency for International Development says is required to address the threat of famine.

The commercial food coming in is also expensive, and scant replacement for international aid that has already been paid for by donor countries and organizations, according to the six aid workers.

“Some items have increased at least 15-fold in cost,” said Majed Qishawi, of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Gaza. “Basic items... have disappeared from the market because of a severe drop in aid and commercial trucks arriving.”

Israeli protesters attack

Traders described a long and perilous process to deliver food from their suppliers in Israel and the West Bank to their intended destinations in Gaza, a 100-mile journey at most, with trouble looming far before goods reach the war-torn enclave.

Several Gaza-bound cargoes, transported by Israeli drivers or by Palestinian drivers who have permission to work in Israel, were blocked or attacked by Israeli protesters in May in a spree of violence which prompted Washington to sanction one involved group with links to Israeli settlers.

The protesters said they were preventing supplies from getting to Hamas.

“Israeli drivers in particular have hiked their transport prices because of the attacks - sometimes by three times,” said another trader, Samir. “A $1,000 trip can cost $3,000.”

Cargoes then often get stuck in lines of trucks before they can enter Gaza, with long waits costing importers about $200 to $300 per day per truck, he added.

The delays are caused by a general backlog in getting food into Gaza, according to the 18 sources interviewed who also include Palestinian and Western officials.

Reuters couldn’t independently verify the logjam at the Gaza border as Israel mostly bars journalists from Gaza and its crossing points.

The traders and aid workers said that for two weeks at the start of June, the Israeli military suspended all entry for commercial goods while a backlog of humanitarian aid was cleared.

One trader shared a text message from an Israeli military coordinator for supplies into Gaza on June 9 telling him that commercial flows were “on hold until further notice,” though Reuters couldn’t verify its authenticity.

The commercial track opened up again around the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday beginning on June 15, the people said.

Bribes & protection rackets

Once food cargoes are allowed to cross into Gaza, the goods are loaded onto different trucks with local drivers to be distributed to vendors in the enclave, the traders said.

They are now in a war zone.

Stretches of road in Rafah and the southern city of Khan Younis that were considered relatively safe before the Rafah invasion are now notorious for attacks, the traders said.

Three of the aid workers said truck lootings were a daily occurrence while Hamuda, the trader, estimated that about six times as many trucks are being ransacked now compared with before the Rafah assault.

Some trucks are attacked for cargoes carrying rarer commodities such as meat or fresh fruit, Hamuda said. Many others are attacked by gangs who have secretly arranged to smuggle goods inside food deliveries, especially tobacco.

One Gazan trader shared a photo of cigarettes smuggled inside a hollowed-out watermelon, though Reuters couldn’t verify its authenticity.

Another obstacle is ongoing Israeli operations, according to the traders who said they have no military official to contact in real time while their trucks are inside Gaza.

If a road is closed by fighting or bombardment, they have no way of figuring out a safe alternative, or relaying this information to their drivers who are often outside cellphone coverage, they added.

Three traders said that last month they began paying larger, better-connected Gazan businessmen who have regular coordination with the Israeli military to secure the entry of their cargoes and protection for their trucks to their destinations.

The traders, who declined to identify the middlemen, said this service alone can cost up to $14,000 to get the goods to their destination safely.

One of the traders, Abu Mohammed, said he had to weigh up how much he could sell his cargo for. “After hiking my prices to compensate for the transport costs, maybe I make a couple of hundred dollars. Maybe I break even,” he said.

“I also risk losing everything,” he added. “If the shipment is ransacked, my money’s been wasted.”

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