JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States is protesting to Israel over seemingly random restrictions on deliveries to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip of harmless goods such as soap and toilet paper, diplomats said Wednesday.
Diplomats fear day-to-day crisis management on Gaza was diverting the United States and other Western governments from bigger issues like the goal of restarting peace negotiations for a Palestinian state.
In one case, Israel blocked for weeks a World Food Program (WFP) shipment of chickpeas, used to make the Palestinian food staple hummus, the U.N. food agency said.
“We’re certainly asking the Israelis questions about this,” a U.S. official said of the restrictions on what is allowed into Gaza.
A Western official said: “The Americans and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are raising their concerns... We’re protesting.”
Israel says it has opened Gaza’s border crossings to larger amounts of food and medicine since a January military offensive that killed about 1,300 Palestinians, destroyed 5,000 homes and left large swathes of the coastal enclave in ruins.
But U.S. and Western officials complain the limited list of humanitarian goods that Israel allows into Gaza changes almost daily, creating major logistical problems for aid groups and donor governments which are unable to plan ahead.
Protests have been made to Israel via diplomatic channels, and have increased since last week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. and Western officials said.
“It is totally surreal,” one European diplomat said of Israeli decision-making. “One day we had 600 kg (1,300 pounds) of pasta at the Kerem Shalom crossing but they said, ‘Today, pasta can’t go in’.”
Another Western diplomat said: “It’s ever-changing. One week jam is okay and the next week it’s not.”
In addition to soap and toilet paper, the officials cited restrictions that come and go on imports of certain types of cheeses, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
Israeli defense official Peter Lerner said in response: “I’m not aware of any problems with toilet paper, toothpaste, dairy products ... and other food stuffs. Basic necessities are being met and are going in on a daily basis.”
Diplomats said the current political transition in Israel was part of the problem, with many decisions on access to Gaza and demolitions in Arab East Jerusalem of Palestinian homes being taken by relatively low level bureaucrats that are slow to change and hard to influence.
The Jewish state held a parliamentary election on Feb 10 but rightist prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is still in the process of forming a coalition government.
In addition to pushing for expanded humanitarian access to Gaza, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has protested the East Jerusalem demolition plans.
The European Union have also protested to Israel about access to Gaza and its actions in Jerusalem.
In a letter of response, obtained by Reuters, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was cooperating with international organizations and would keep Gaza’s border crossings open to humanitarian assistance “for exclusively civilian needs.”
Israel has long banned military equipment and most commercial goods from entering Gaza, and those restrictions may hinder a multibillion-dollar reconstruction plan backed by Western and Arab governments.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)
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