JERUSALEM — Israel recently decided to curtail the movement of relief workers into and out of the Gaza Strip. This severely hampering efforts by humanitarian aid organizations — including Catholic charities — which provide assistance to needy Palestinians.

Since May 10, Israeli authorities have barred those without diplomatic passports from entering or leaving Gaza, a densely populated territory Israel captured from Egypt in 1967. Conditions there are among the most wretched in the world and hundreds of thousands of people rely on various forms of assistance from more than 40 nongovernmental organizations.

Israeli authorities decided to hermetically seal Gaza, which was already under a looser security closure that restricted movement of Palestinians, following a spate of Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians in May. These attacks, which were perpetrated by militant groups that reject Israel's right to exist, coincided with the resumption of peace negotiations under the framework of the new Middle East “road map.”

A Mideast peace summit with President George Bush and the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority was expected to take place in early June.

Israel's closure of Gaza also came after three members of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity movement were injured — one fatally — by Israeli troops while they acted as human shields. They entered Israel claiming to be relief workers.

In a statement issued May 26, the same day it held a demonstration against the closure policy, the Association of International Development Agencies charged Israel with impeding humanitarian work.

“The Israeli measures are contributing to the overall erosion in the ability of humanitarian aid and development organizations to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Many organizations have been forced to spend up to 50% of their working hours dealing with the growing restrictions,” the statement said.

The 41 organizations that signed the statement called for Israel to “immediately lift the restrictions” and to provide “full and unrestricted access to all.”

Daniel Seaman, an Israeli government spokesman, dismissed the organizations' complaints, insisting that some relief workers are still permitted to enter Gaza.

“There is a procedure to gain permission,” he said. “They have to submit a request to the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Then the individual's background is checked.”

Citing cases where foreigners entered Israel, Gaza and the West Bank claiming they were relief workers but instead acted as “human shields” during Israeli military operations, Seaman said, “Some people took advantage of these organizations to help terrorists. When these organizations stop aiding and abetting terrorists and Palestinians stop murdering Israelis, then we'll reconsider their request.”

In response, nongovernmental organization representatives say their work, which is vital to countless Palestinians, should not be hindered by the questionable behavior of a small group of individuals. They stress, too, that aid workers who were once considered acceptable to Israel's military are suddenly being grounded.

“I definitely understand Israel's concerns, but to deny humanitarian workers to carry out their work, which affects large numbers of Palestinian civilians dependent on aid, isn't the answer,” said Nanna Ahlmark, the communications officer for Caritas, a Catholic charity.

Caritas has been forced to delay the opening of a state-of-the-art clinic in a Gaza refugee camp because the closure has prevented it from hiring staff.

“This is a large problem affecting all humanitarian organizations working in Gaza,” Ahlmark said. “It's affecting our projects and many, many others.”

Refused Entries

Sue Turrell, regional Middle East manager for Christian Aid, an interdenominational agency of British churches, said Israel has refused her entry into Gaza on three separate occasions during a three-week period.

“I come to Gaza three to four times a year to meet with our partners, to check on the progress of various projects, to see how the money is being spent. Now I'll have to come an additional time once the border is open again,” Turrell said wearily.

Christian Aid's partners, which include the Near East Council of Churches, run clinics and vocational schools and help small farmers.

Due to the closure, Turrell said, her organization has been unable to establish a new program that, once up and running, will provide small grants for community projects.

World Vision Israel, an ecumenical Christian organization, has also been badly affected by the limits being imposed on aid workers.

“Our main office is in Gaza City, so important papers aren't getting through, financial matters can't be processed and programming is suffering,” said Allyn Dhynes, who works on advocacy and peace building at World Vision. “Now all business is conducted by phone, fax or e-mail — provided the electricity is on at the time.”

During a recent Israeli army incursion into the Gaza neighborhood of Beit Hanoun, a fresh-water well dug by World Vision was destroyed by an army bulldozer.

Prior to the travel restrictions, Dhynes said, “our staffers waited four to five hours at the checkpoint. That in and of itself hindered us. Now, the closure allows for no movement whatsoever.”

Dhynes said that of World Vision's staffers, an American national was recently refused entry. “The Israelis said it was for security reasons,” he said.

“We're not human shields,” Dhynes said, referring to the foreigners who have recently tried to intercede during Israeli military operations.

“That's not our mandate,” he added. “Humanitarian aid is our mandate.”

There are signs that the “road map” is already yielding results, however. Following a meeting with Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas May 29, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon said that he would order the IDF to pull out of the center of West Bank cities. Israel Radio reported the next day that Sharon also intends to ease restrictions on humanitarian organizations working in the occupied territories.

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.