Reportage. Some 1,500 trucks full of aid are piling up at the Egyptian border with Gaza. A Kafkaesque security program blocks lifegiving supplies while Palestinians starve a few miles away.

Israel is blocking incubators and food from entering Gaza with no explanation

The line of stopped trucks begins at Ismailiya. The drivers get out, stretching their legs. Just ahead, a checkpoint is the first of many internal borders that have been a sign of the militarized state of exception of the Sinai Peninsula for years.

An Egyptian government official sits between the checkpoint’s imaginary lanes, in front of a dusty plastic table and an old-fashioned ledger, in which he writes down with a pen the license plates of every vehicle passing through. The full spectrum of society can be seen: dark-colored cars with men in suits, rusty vans, family minivans, boys with keffiyehs draped over their heads and their faces darkened by the sun, which is very intense here. A Sinai University bus passes by, empty. A pickup follows it, carrying hundreds of garlic braids.

A few hundred meters later, we see the checkpoint leading to the Suez Canal tunnel. Ten lanes, deserted. It was designed, perhaps, for massive traffic that doesn’t exist nowadays: the Sinai is heavily armored. At the end of each lane, X-ray scanners for buses and trucks have been mounted.

More trucks can be seen, here and there. They have the logos of the UNRWA, IOM, Turkish NGOs. Hundreds of kilometers later, we see them again: first in al-Arish, then in Rafah. It is here, just a short way away from Gaza, that Operation Iron Sword, launched by Israel after the October 7 Hamas attack, makes its presence felt: namely, with the 1,500 humanitarian trucks stuck between al-Arish and Rafah. They are overflowing with aid and the destination is just a step away. Yet they wait there, stuck under the desert sun.

“The flow of aid is increasing, from all over the world. I feel like saying: slow down, we can’t get it in. But how do you say no to people who want to donate?” Mohammed Noseer tells us, the head of operations for the Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC) in al-Arish. He is in his 60s and says he has never seen a war like this one. At the crossing, he welcomes the Italian solidarity caravan organized by AOI together with Assopace and ARCI. Opposition parliamentarians, journalists and NGOs have come to call for an immediate ceasefire.

Noseer paces up and down in front of the crossing, holding a walkie-talkie, coordinating entrances and exits. He points to the concrete wall that continues to the right and to the left in the great arch that has become a symbol of global powerlessness. The sight of the crossing seems unreal, like a storyboard for a bad movie. On this side, a dystopian calm; on the other side, hunger and bombs.

“Trucks pass through here, but not all the ones you see enter Gaza right away. They have to go through inspections first.” It is there that the complex procedure resulting from the agreement between Israel, Egypt and the UN begins. The military bureaucracy is slowing the flow to a desperate trickle: “There are two lines,” says Noseer. “The UN convoys go directly to the Kerem Shalom crossing. Convoys from the ERC, international NGOs and those sent by other countries go to Nitzana, 50 km south. After inspection, they head for Kerem Shalom. They unload the cargo on the ground while waiting for Palestinian trucks to load them: Israel doesn’t allow any outside trucks to enter Gaza.”

Getting approved takes days, sometimes weeks. They also check the drivers: they first go through the “scanner” of the Egyptian security services, then that of the Israeli ones. There is constant traffic to and fro because everything now passes through Kerem Shalom. Rafah is an illusory entrance: only fuel is allowed through here. “Then, the crossings work only five days a week. They close on Friday and Saturday, for the Muslim holiday and the Jewish holiday. They kill Muslims all week, but on Friday they let them have a day of prayer,” Noseer remarks with bitter irony.

And the trucks are piling up at the border. As of today, there are 1,500 of them. On Tuesday, President Biden raised his voice from Air Force One: Israel has no more excuses for not allowing the entry of humanitarian aid. One can only wonder if he used that tone with Gantz, too, in the face-to-face meeting a few hours earlier.

A short distance from the crossing, a barren patch of land, drenched in blinding sun and dust, serves as a parking lot for the trucks and a temporary home for their drivers. They’re saying they can’t take it anymore; some have been waiting for a month to unload their cargo. There is a small mosque and a tiny convenience store. They’ve come prepared: they hang their clothes out to dry among the truck cabs, and the lockers on the sides of the trucks serve as kitchen and coffee table. They make themselves tea, they prepare hot dishes. “They’re paying us anyway, but it’s a waste,” says one of them. “Around al Arish, it’s full of trucks. They keep us at the crossings for inspections, as much as 7-8 days. They make us come back several times to inspect the same truck.”

Moataz Banafa is part of the Gaza supporting team of the OCHA UN agency. In that parking lot, surrounded by endless humanitarian trucks, he tries to give us some numbers: there are about 800 trucks there, with hundreds more along the road. Others are still in Nitzana for screening; they call them “sleeping trucks.” They stay there for up to a week before the go-ahead for Kerem Shalom. “At this time, 150 go through per day; sometimes less, 60 or 80. Each truck takes seven to 10 days to go through; but some have been waiting for a month.”

Nobody knows what goes into the decision. It often comes from inside the nerve centers of the Israeli military occupation; the bureaucracy seems arbitrary and one has no certainty, as if surrounded by thick fog. And then there are the protests: “Blockades by Israeli right-wing protesters have often managed to close the crossing altogether,” Banafa continues. “It’s a cost to the UN and the NGOs: they pay for every extra day. It’s certain that with a ceasefire, many more trucks would come in. We saw that with the December truce.”

The inspections are not a mere formality. Ten percent of the aid is sent back, with a red X on it painted by the Israeli officials. It only takes one X, on a single aid package, to reject an entire truck, Banafa says. The Red Crescent stores the rejected aid in a facility in al-Arish. There is no actual list of off-limits goods, Noseer told us earlier at the crossing: “COGAT [the Israeli Civil Administration for the Occupied Palestinian Territories] has never sent us an official email with what is permitted and what is not. They put an X, they send it back, but they don’t give a justification. Our warehouse is full.”

It certainly is. They have added other prefabricated buildings to the main concrete structure, because the goods have to be protected. “They reject anything that produces energy, including solar panels. Even lamps. They reject generators, oxygen cylinders, refrigerators. Any metal object, even crutches. They reject tents if they’re in military camouflage colors: they say they could be used by Hamas for uniforms. And hygiene kits if they contain nail clippers: they say they can be used as knives.”

The warehouse is teeming with pallets, stacked on top of each other, on three aisles. Among everything, what really gives us chills are the incubators: at Al-Shifa Hospital, dozens of premature babies were killed due to the cutting off of electricity and the incubators being out of order. There are also kitchen kits, long-stay beds, generators, water containers, water purifiers. In Gaza, such goods mark the line between life and death.

“Israel also sends back some goods based on who donated them,” adds Noseer. “If they come from Iran, for example, or from Palestinian associations. We take the logos off the packages and send them through anyway.” This also happens with ambulances: 60 are parked in front of the warehouse. “Israel only allows seven ambulances per week to enter,” Banafa says. “In there, it has destroyed dozens of them. The ambulances are needed.”

The Palestinians are using donkey-drawn carts to carry away the wounded – and the dead. Some ambulances here have logos from Arab countries. They just peel them off, in the almost-reassuring idea that they can get around a sick system.

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