Eerie silence

That is why Oxfam have sent me on the road again. That is why I am telling you.

Travelling with colleagues from Oxford and New York, I'm visiting the makeshift crossing at Sufa which is working flat out and the high tech, custom-built crossing at Karni, which is hardly working at all. 

It's a day of emptiness and silence, the eerie silence of one and a half million people holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. 

First we get to Sufa, far down in the south east of Gaza. 

By the time we get there in the early afternoon there is nothing at the end of the tarmac road except the unfriendly sandy sprawl of the closed military zone and a low mound.

Behind this scene, the day's consignment of 107 aid lorries have unloaded their cargoes of flour and oil and beans and rice and milk and eggs for the Palestinians to load again on to their lorries to take to warehouses and then to shops and hospitals throughout Gaza.

Public relations success

We were too late, the Israeli army has taken its clipboard and its beach umbrella home for the day, job done, people fed the basics, enough to survive. 

A 'golden cascade, like
pennies from heaven' [Oxfam]
 

An efficient, cheerful operation, if it was like the one I saw here last week, a public relations success that distracts us from the reality of the siege. 

One and a half million people permitted to breathe the stale air of Israel's benevolence, not the fresh air of freedom the rest of us like to think we enjoy.

I talk to the Major in charge of this humanitarian respirator on my mobile phone. 

He is pleased to tell me how many lorry-loads were processed at Sufa.

He tells me work is continuing at the smaller and more mysterious Karem Shalom crossing even further south. 

There they will process 20 lorries today, maybe 21. 

We can't go there, we didn't get permission. I wonder what we are missing. But good news, at Karni the grain transfer is still going on, we can go to see that.

Surreal Karni  

We race off up route 232. It's 40km to Karni. 

At Karni, we drive past the empty lanes of new concrete, the barriers and stop signs, the potted flowers and brightly painted wishing wells of the crossing, all silent and deserted in the sun.

We drive around the side to the mounds of aggregate waiting to be conveyed into Gaza as building materials. 

We drive underneath a slender bridge carrying a conveyor belt from Israel into Gaza and there at the end we find one lone soldier. 

'It is all noise and dust as the grain 
lorry and trailer arrives' [Oxfam]

Aaron, from nearby Be'r Sheva, is happy in his job overseeing the transfer of grain, via the aggregate conveyor.

It's been newly refurbished at Palestinian expense (he didn't tell us this bit), to supply Gaza's six flour mills.

Aaron explains to us that the commercial millers of Gaza have arranged a way to get the grain they need to make flour to make the daily bread for one and a half million people. 

I ask Aaron if using the conveyor for the grain was his idea.  He smiles a modest smile, 'no, it was Israel’s'. 

Aaron is pleased to be doing his bit to feed the people over the border, beyond the wire and the concrete and the guns.

He wouldn't be out of place in a humanitarian agency (apart from the gun).

We wait in the heat for the last two lorries of the day.  It is hot and silent in this desert. 

Spur winged plovers, stark black and white fly from mound to mound of the creamy aggregate.

A desert fox walks stealthily in the distance, stops to stare at us, large black ears listening, then melts away. 

We wait. Then, it's all noise and dust as the grain lorry and trailer arrives.

Golden casacade 

Action, the lorry is positioned over a grille in the ground at the end of the conveyor, the back is released, the grain starts to trickle, then flood as the container is tipped up.

A golden cascade, like pennies from heaven. The conveyor starts, the lorry moves forward and the process is repeated with the container on the trailer. 

Aaron is excited, 'ten minutes, that's all it takes to transfer 42 tonnes of grain into Gaza, you can time it.'

He is proud of this. The Major is proud, when he calls me later to get my reaction.  Proud to be providing, “the humanitarian basics and a bit more.”  Proud of a public relations job well done.

I commend him on the efficiency and good humour of his team. 

I do not get into politics, into the ethics and morality of siege and strangulation and artificial respiration of a million and a half people. 

That is a discussion to be had with the policy makers and politicians. With the men with guns and rockets and bombs on both sides of the border. It's a discussion we should all be part of though.

Silence returns and the dust settles after the lorry has sped away. 

Then, in the distance, we can hear the ghostly clatter and bangs of the lorries on the other side of the border, a world away, as the golden grain is loaded to feed the hungry.

Accepting the unacceptable

We drive away each, in our own silence, thinking how quickly the bizarre becomes normal. 

How quickly we are lulled into accepting the unacceptable. One and a half million people depending on the goodwill of the system that holds them under siege.

Having to depend on the diligence and hard work of the lorry drivers and the Major's cheerful few who stand with their clip boards all day sweating in the hot dusty desert.

While in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Gaza City and Ramallah, Cairo and Riyadh, Brussels and Washington the powerful deliberate and plot, self-styled Olympian gods, toying with the fate of mere mortals.