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Thursday, 26 February 2009

Israel blocks pasta shipment to Gaza, and tensions boil

For more than seven weeks, the international aid group Mercy Corps has been trying to send 90 tons of macaroni to the isolated Gaza Strip as part of a global campaign to help the 1.4 million Palestinians there rebuild their lives after Israel's recent devastating 22-day military operation.

Israel, which controls most of what goes into and out of Gaza, has said no repeatedly.

At first, Israeli officials said that they wanted to make sure that the macaroni wasn't destined for a Hamas charity. Then they said macaroni was banned because they didn't consider it an essential food item.

On Wednesday, days after American lawmakers raised pointed questions about the macaroni ban, Israeli authorities said that they were preparing to give the pasta a green light.

For the international aid community, the dispute is emblematic of the red tape and political maneuvering that have stymied efforts to rebuild Gaza.

"We're at the end of our rope," said David Holdridge, the head of Middle East emergency relief efforts for Mercy Corps. "This is just ridiculous. It's absolutely absurd."

The Israeli restrictions are expected to be a central issue in the coming days when George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's new Middle East special envoy, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive in the region for discussions about how to help Gaza without strengthening Hamas, its hard-line Islamist ruler. More