Israel's Blockade of Gaza: What Items Are Allowed In?

One of the arguments one hears a lot from Israel's representatives and supporters is that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that the blockade only keeps out dangerous materials. The blockade, according to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, is only aimed at preventing the shipment of weapons to Hamas. Netanyahu says the same thing, insisting that civilian goods are allowed in but that Israel "will not allow the establishment of an Iranian port in Gaza."

That narrative took a serious hit yesterday. Today's AP wire has a story about the Israeli government easing the blockade of Gaza in response to international criticism. The newly permitted items: soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy.

Soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy. Undoubtedly because of their dual use potential as military weapons. (Well, if you shake a bottle of soda really hard...) I cannot help wondering which particular segment of the population of Gaza was being targeted by the exclusion of cookies and candy.

The existence of a humanitarian crisis is well documented (try the 2008 report by eight British human rights groups, or more recent stories carried by The Guardian, and the BBC. To be sure, there is no question that large amounts of materials are smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. But of course, smuggled items are vastly more expensive, and the volume cannot come close to making up for the effects of the blockade. Regardless, it is hardly the case that a blockade is somehow justified by virtue of its imperfect efficiency. So yesterday's announcement raises a fascinating question: what, exactly, are the Israelis keeping out of Gaza other than juice, jam, and candy?

The answer is not clear; I have not been able to discover any public list of prohibited items produced by the Israeli government. Weapons, of course, and also "dual use" materials with a special emphasis on construction materials such as cement and steel that Israel says can be uses to build tunnels and arms factories. The exclusion of cement is a source of particular hardship, given the 12,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, as well as hospitals, schools, and other public buildings. Beyond that, there appears to be no publicly available, specific list of blockaded items. The BBC has compiled reports from a variety of international organizations. They report that at various times the ban on importation has included light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, shampoo and conditioner. CNN reports that books and paper have also been kept out. Al JAzeera reports that there is a current list of 81 permitted items that seems to change almost daily.

By far the most interesting part of the BBC report is something else. It is a list of items the importation of which was previously blocked but is now permitted, with the time period in which the importation was allowed. These are announcements like the one yesterday that reveal to the world what has been kept out by the announcement that those same items will now be allowed in. It is not at all clear, however, precisely when all of these items were first excluded - that is, because in early 2009 Israel began to allow the importation of chickpeas does not tell us whether the ban on the importation of chickpeas had been an element of the blockade since 2007 or was added later as a punitive response to some particular event. Nonetheless, the list is rather interesting. Again, this is the BBC's report of information complied from international aid groups including UNRWA, Oxfam, and others.

It would be very interesting to hear a response from the Israeli government in the form of an actual list of excluded items other than the now-permitted soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy. In the meantime, we have only these allegations to go on.

So, according to the BBC's report, in early 2009 Israel eased the blockade of Gaza by permitting the importation of chick peas, salt, sugar, cooking oil, cooking fat, flour, pasta, rice, beans, lentils, dairy products, powdered milk, feminine hygiene products, diapers, toilet paper, detergent, dishwashing liquid, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. In October 2009, tea and coffee allegedly were allowed in. November and December 2009 were alleged to have been banner months, as olives, blankets, matches, candles, broomsticks, rubbish bins, mops, aniseed, cinnamon, unfertilized eggs, potatoes were allowed across the checkpoints. I wonder whether March of 2010 saw a lot of parties, as it is alleged that clothes, shoes, hair brushes and combs were permitted to cross the checkpoints, and in April 2010 limited amounts of wood, aluminium, kitchenware and glass.

This is only a partial recitation: the full, remarkable, list is here. And now, of course, the Israeli government has confirmed that it will no longer keep out soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies and candy.