The crossing, known as Karni or al-Muntar, is Gaza's only commercial outlet to the outside world.

Israeli forces unilaterally shut down the crossing on 14 January based on "intelligence alerts of impending attacks", according to the Israeli Army. 

The closure comes despite an agreement brokered by Condoleeza Rice, the US Secretary of State, late last year that said the passage would operate continuously, especially during the harvest season.  

According to the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the closure is costing Palestinians up to $500,000 a day.

Dairy products, baby formula, sugar, rice are amongst items dwindling on the supermarket shelves in Gaza.   

In addition, 90 containers of humanitarian supplies, including food and aid, belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), are stuck at Israeli ports, says the group.  

Supplies blocked

"The Palestinian Ministry of Health is running short on medical supplies and has to rely on emergency stocks. Drugs for anaesthetic use are in particular short supply"

UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The UN agency says there is also a shortage of construction materials and medicines including vital children's vaccinations.  

"The Palestinian Ministry of Health is running short on medical supplies and has to rely on emergency stocks. Drugs for anaesthetic use are in particular short supply," said the report. 
Gaza's main hospital is also facing a shortage of a solution used for hundreds of kidney dialysis patients.

The Gaza-based Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights and Israel's Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) issued a statement jointly condemning the "tightening of the siege" imposed on the Gaza by Israeli occupation forces.

"Since the recent tightening of the closure by closing Karni Crossing, the Gaza Strip's residents' humanitarian predicament progressively increases from day to day; many basic foods have been consumed and are no longer available in the local market in the Gaza Strip, in addition to a drastic increase of prices of the remaining quantities of these basic goods," said the statement.

Israeli forces say they suspected Palestinian groups were digging a tunnel under the crossing.  No such tunnel has been found, as the closure nears the end of its third week, Palestinian security sources say.  

Endangering lives

Israeli army measures, such as
the closure, still affect Gazans

"These measures are harming the health and lives of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip," Shabtai Gold, of PHR, told Aljazeera.net.

"It also shows that the Israeli military still has some control over the lives of the Palestinians even after disengagement."

The Palestinian Trade Centre estimates that around 80 commercial trucks that normally pass through Karni from Gaza to the West Bank and Israel everyday have been unable to exit, creating a total loss of $7 million this month alone.

The losses come amidst a deepening financial crisis for the Palestinians. Following a Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections, the US has cut direct foreign aid to Palestinians while the Israelis have frozen tax-revenues to the Palestinian Authority to the tune of some $43 million. 

The crossing has been completely or partially closed everyday during the past three years and working at half its potential capacity, according to both al-Mezan and OCHA.

Gaza farmers have been demonstrating against the closure. In recent days, they dumped loads of rotting fruits, vegetables and flowers near the crossing in protest.

Wasted produce

Nearly 170 tonnes of their produce - carnations, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and bell peppers, have been destroyed or donated, or are in the process of rotting, with the  local market unable to absorb the vast quantities destined for export.  

Some 70 tonnes are awaiting shipment, and some 100 tonnes are in need of immediate harvesting.

Mohammad al-Bakri, of the union of agricultural work committees, says that in addition, some 45% of the annual water expenditure has been wasted on the rotting crops.  "In a thirsty place as Gaza, that is truly a waste. It could have gone to the people," said al-Bakri.

Al-Bakri says the closure also threatens agricultural projects being undertaken with Japanese collaboration, since  equipments, seedlings, and fertilisers cannot be brought in.

"There are $1 million worth of projects waiting for us. We can't resume our normal work. We ask for international community to do something about this. A closure of this magnitude is the greatest catastrophe that can inflict the agricultural sector," said al-Bakri.

It is strawberry harvest season now in the Gaza. The low-pesticide berries would have found a ready market in Europe, if only they could be exported in time.

Strawberry fields

"We can't resume our normal work. We ask for international community to do something about this. A closure of this magnitude is the greatest catastrophe that can inflict the agricultural sector"

Mohammad al-Bakri,
Union of Agricultural Work Committees

After Israeli forces began to consistently raze citrus orchards and other "tall growing" crops (the Israelis argue resistance fighters hide in them), low-laying crops like strawberries became the plant of choice, according to Abu Tamer of the Strawberry Society in the northern Gaza Strip village of Beit Lahiya.

The output doubled in a matter of years.

Farmers, now out of work, had hoped for a better than usual season given the recent post-disengagement agreement brokered by Condoleezza Rice in November.  

The agreement stated that Israel would "permit the export of all agricultural products from the Gaza Strip during this 2005 harvest season".

"I am totally broke.  My livelihood has been destroyed," said Riyad Ni'mami, a 34-year-old strawberry farmer and father of eight, amidst vast fields of bare berry crops in the northern Gaza Strip farming village of Beit Lahiya. 

Ni'mami has no income and has taken to planting garlic and corn seedlings in between the strawberry bushes ahead of the spring harvest to capitalise on the water being wasted on the berries, which are usualy exported to Europe.   

"I'm going to think twice about growing berries from now on. This is the second time they've closed down the crossing during peak strawberry season," added Ni'mami.

Struggling famers

The strawberry season is currently
at its peak

Flower farmers have also been hit hard. Usually destined for Holland, the flowers are now wrapped in cellophane and sitting in buckets and fridges, waiting for export. 

Storage space has been maximised, and the flowers, which usually sell for $100 a crate in the Dutch flower exchange, are now being used as cattle feed, according to Ibrahim Dahnun, a flower exporter in the northern Gaza Strip.  

"There are no buckets left, no fridges left, nothing.  Everyone is screaming for help," said Dahnun, his telephone ringing incessantly as he took call after call from angry farmers as well as Israeli importers.

"They said they could try to get through two trucks. Two trucks!" he said, outraged, adding that attempts by farmers to smuggle out a few crates of fruit and vegetables through the Palestinian-Egyptian controlled crossing have been met with refusal by European observers.

Israeli offer

An Israeli army spokesperson said that they have offered the Palestinian Authority an alternative crossing to use in the meantime at Kerem Shalom, located at the southeast corner of the Strip, bordering both Egypt and Israel.  

The PA has so far refused, says the army. Palestinian officials argue that Israel is ultimately responsible for the closure and is trying to "impose a solution" upon them that could have adverse political ramifications.

Rashad abu Dayer, in charge of exports in the Ministry of Agriculture, told Aljazeera.net that Palestinians officials have sat down with Israeli officials to solve the problem, but so far there has been no agreement to re-open the crossing.

He also said that the PA is still entertaining the proposal that the crops may be exported through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is not yet functional or equipped with proper storage facilities, adding that the issue now is related to the general political changes in the area and an agreement with a new Palestinian government.