The war in the Gaza Strip between Israeli forces and Palestinian Hamas marks its 19th day Wednesday, Jan. 14.
As the world continues its fight over who deserves blame, the Portland-based humanitarian organization Mercy Corps is working to bring food and supplies to the civilians affected by the violence.
Last Wednesday, Jan. 7, the aid group succeeded in delivering its first shipment of rice and tuna to the region—where more than 900 people have died, according to news reports—since the conflict began Dec. 27.
There was one glitch: The Israeli army wouldn't let Mercy Corps include 500 pounds of dates in its food delivery, since the Middle Eastern fruit is considered a comfort food rather than an essential item.
That objection delayed the whole shipment for an entire day, says Andrew Dwonch, a mission director for Mercy Corps who oversees charitable activities in the West Bank.
Dwonch, 32, lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children. But he was in Portland last week to coordinate Mercy Corps' response to the latest outbreak of violence.
WW: How did the delivery of relief supplies go last Wednesday?
Andrew Dwonch: After several days of waiting, the Israeli authorities allowed our shipment to go in. We had a couple of false starts. We got a call in the middle of the night telling us the shipment wouldn't go in the next day because they wanted to remove what they considered non-essential food items—dates—from the cargo.
What grounds do they have to take away dates?
Dates are a traditional food eaten by Arabs across the Arab world. It's more of a comfort food. It's not rice. It's not a staple. But, at the same time, it doesn't make sense for 500 pounds of dates to stop a shipment for a day, to prevent it from going in. The excuse is a little thin.
Who are you helping?
That shipment will help 200 families in Khan Younis, which is in the south-central part of the Gaza Strip.
What does it take to get approval for a shipment?
Ultimately, shipments are being approved by the Israeli military at a fairly high level. It's a little bit mysterious. We don't exactly understand. And basically there is no published or stated policy on what they will and will not allow, which is part of the frustration. If they said, "These are the 20 rules that we have in place for sending shipments to Gaza," then we could follow them.
If you don't get approval, how do you help civilians?
We're working on bringing in goods as well from Egypt [which borders the Gaza Strip to the south] through the Rafah crossing [which doesn't require permission from Israeli authorities]. We are doing, as well, a lot of local procurement of goods inside of Gaza. But the prices on goods are significantly higher now than they were.
Plastic sheeting for repairing windows that have been broken. Duct tape. Things people can use to make temporary repairs to their houses to be able to get through the winter nights. Prices are approximately two to three times higher now compared with before the current conflict.
Are you surprised the United States declined last week to vote on the U.N. Security Council resolution urging a cease-fire?
The U.S. usually abstains on resolutions relating to Israel, so it's not a newsworthy event. That's obviously frustrating. But it's understood that America is a primary supporter of Israel.
You're helping civilians, and Hamas is accused of using civilians as "human shields." Do you ever think you're helping Hamas by helping civilians?
It's hard to say who is Hamas. Hamas has many supporters in Gaza. Humanitarian aid is not political. Providing food to children in not political. In some way I'm sure, yes, [aid] is going to people who voted in the past in support of Hamas. But the majority of Gaza did, so that's not surprising.
Would it ever be appropriate for you to point a finger at Israel and say, "It's your fault?"
No, no, no. We wouldn't do that. There are rockets flying from Gaza. And Israel is trying to, supposedly, target the locations the rockets were fired from. You can't really put blame on one side.
What's the biggest misconception Americans have about this conflict?
In some cases I've talked to Americans who believe the Palestinians are occupying Israeli land. Overall I don't think people have a firm grasp of the conditions that have led to this conflict. People in the United States tend to blame the Palestinians.
What's one thing in the Middle East that reminds you of Portland?
We have Starbucks in Jordan and Lebanon.
Find out about Mercy Corps' work in the Middle East and other regions at mercycorps.org.