The U.N. official responsible for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday that Israel has been too slow to relax its blockade of Gaza, which has devastated the isolated economy and failed to achieve its security goals.
Israel and Egypt closed their crossings with Gaza to all but humanitarian aid after the Islamic militant group Hamas violently seized power in the coastal strip in June 2007, exacerbating poverty among the 1.4 million residents.
Israel eased the blockade two years ago, allowing the import of many consumer goods, but it continues to bar the export of manufactured goods. Exports, especially to the West Bank on the opposite side of Israel, were once a mainstay of Gaza's economy.
Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, told The Associated Press that the export ban had "completely obliterated" Gaza's economy.
"The people who really have been penalized are not the people in power in Gaza; it is the common people who are being impoverished by the blockade, but also the business community, which has a greater stake in peace," Grandi said.
He said imports of building materials for U.N. and government construction projects had brought some relief for Gazans but the process of screening those goods was slow and cumbersome.
He noted that the blockade had led to a flourishing black market in goods that pass without any security screening through a network of illegal tunnels under Gaza's border.
"We respect their security concerns, but at the same time, every day 10 times more materials come through the tunnels," Grandi said. "Who checks those?"
He said that the blockade was "not really effective" and it was "very difficult to understand why so much work has to be done in the name of security."
Grandi was in the Australian capital to sign an agreement in which Canberra will provide 90 million Australian dollar ($90 million) over five years to support Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.