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GAZA AND IRAQ: What Israel Can Learn From the UN’s “Oil-for-Food” Program

In order to evaluate the alleged humanitarian crisis in Gaza, it’s useful to compare the present situation under the Israeli blockade with what happened more than a decade ago in Iraq under the UN’s Oil-for-Food Program.

“Oil-for-Food” History and Implementation

For several years following Iraq’s invasion of and subsequent expulsion from Kuwait (1990-91), Saddam Hussein ignored a series of UN Security Council resolutions. These resolutions required that Saddam allow full access for UN inspection teams to verify that Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction program, while also enforcing the country’s demilitarization.

The UN established a naval blockade in order to prevent Iraq from re-arming itself in preparation for a possible future war. The Persian Gulf Multinational Interdiction Force (“MNIF”) intercepted ships sailing to and from Iraq to prevent shipments of contraband into the country and shipments of oil going out.

At a certain point it became clear that ordinary Iraqi citizens were inordinately harmed by the international economic sanctions aimed at weakening the government. The inability to sell oil freely crippled Iraq’s economy, making it virtually impossible to supply the population with food, medicine and other essential humanitarian goods.

Thus was born the Oil-for-Food Program (UNSC Resolution 986) implemented in 1996. Under the program, Iraq was allowed to sell a fixed amount of oil on the world market every six months – totaling well over $60 Billions worth of sales during the life of the program. (While a complicated system was set up to ensure that purchasers were paying an appropriate price based on the international oil market, allegations surfaced years later that kickbacks were paid to the Iraqi government, helping Saddam to remain in power.) Rather than going directly to the Iraqi Government for use as it saw fit, the proceeds from these sales were deposited in an escrow account established and controlled by the UN in the New York branch of BNP Paribas bank. Iraq was then allowed to purchase goods for its people by drawing funds from this account. (Approximately 73% of the funds were used for this purpose, with 25% going to Gulf War reparations and 2% for administrative and operational costs.)

In practice, Iraq reached agreement with a private seller for purchase of specific products. This purchase agreement was then submitted to the UN’s “Sanctions Committee” for review. Countries on the committee – including, among others, the US, Russia, England, and France – reviewed these contracts to make sure that the products were in fact humanitarian in nature. Committee members had the ability to place a “hold” on any contract that was considered potentially inappropriate while additional information regarding the end use of the product was requested. Countries could “block” a contract permanently if they opposed purchase of the particular goods.

In the case of the US, a special committee was established. Led by the Department of State, with representatives from the Pentagon, CIA and other relevant agencies, the committee reviewed each proposed contract. Many contracts for basic foodstuffs were fast-tracked – wheat and rice, cooking oil, etc. Some were deemed problematic because they were for items that clearly were not humanitarian in nature (e.g., lyposuction machines, centrifuges, or marble for construction of palaces for Saddam). These were blocked relatively quickly.

The most difficult decisions related to “dual use items,” i.e., items that arguably were appropriate for civilian use, but could also be adapted for military purposes. For example, Saddam attempted to purchase tens of thousands of heavy-duty tractors. Of course, the tractors could be used to produce food, but the engines were also easily swapped into Iraqi tanks whose original engines no longer functioned. Another example was an order for millions of eggs (rather than chickens to produce eggs). Were these to feed starving people, or to serve as a medium for growing biological weapons? And what about serum that was asserted to be for treatment of snakebites? The problem was that the snake for this particular anti-venom serum was not indigenous to Iraq. The serum could be used, however, to treat workers who had been exposed accidentally to biological weapons.

At its peak, Oil-for-Food was approving enough food to supply more than 60% of Iraq’s citizens with a nutritionally sufficient diet (well over 2000 Calories per day). The problem was distribution. Humanitarian goods were to be delivered to Iraqi ports, where they would be inspected before entering the country. While there were over 300 international inspectors inside Iraq, much of the distribution was in fact controlled by the government itself, and was based on an identification card system. Unfortunately, there were many Iraqis who were deathly afraid to make there existence or whereabouts known to the Iraqi authorities. As a result, these people had no access to the food and medicine being shipped in.

There have been allegations that many Iraqi children died as the result of economic sanctions that limited food availability. It is just as possible, however, that sufficient food entered the country, but was prevented from reaching its intended recipients.

The black market was also a serious issue. There were widespread reports that the Iraqi government hoarded medicines. Rather than being distributed freely, medicines were stockpiled in warehouses and sold at exorbitant prices, with the proceeds going directly to Saddam and his cronies.

As in any large distribution system, favoritism was an ongoing problem. Saddam’s close supporters had no problem obtaining more than enough food to live very comfortably. Perhaps the most outrageous waste of food was by Saddam himself. Every day, meals were prepared at each of Saddam’s many palaces, just in case he and his entourage might decide to visit. At the end of the day, literally thousands of uneaten meals prepared for this purpose were simply discarded.

Humanitarian Goods for Gaza

Let’s compare the UN’s experiences in Iraq with what’s happening in Hamas-controlled Gaza. In broad terms, the embargo implemented by Israel has is the same as the embargo instituted by the UN vis-a-vis Iraq. In both cases, the embargoing authority attempted to insure that essential foodstuffs were made available to the general population while preventing government access to military equipment. Indeed, the Israeli naval blockade parallels the Multinational Interdiction Force that boarded hundreds of ships in the Persian Gulf. (It’s important to note that both blockades were designed to be enforced in international waters. Efficacy of the MNIF’s blockade was somewhat reduced when Iraq realized that it could gain a modicum of protection from interdiction by paying Iran for the right to send its ships through Iranian national waters, where they would be immune from seizure. Money and anti-American sentiment make for strange bedfellows!)

We hear a lot about the “humanitarian disaster” in Gaza, but we also see pictures of markets and fancy restaurants brimming with food and pharmacies fully stocked with medicines. At worst, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle – some Gazans may be suffering while others are doing reasonably well. The world speaks of genocide and starving children, yet the population of Gaza has actually increased over the past few years. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Gaza compare favorably with those of Egypt, Turkey, and other nearby Arab countries.

What we know for sure is that hundreds of truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies enter Gaza via Israeli land crossings every week, with additional untold amounts of legal and contraband goods coming in through hundreds if not thousands of tunnels under the Egypt/Gaza border. The Israeli government’s recent announcement that it will substantially ease limitations on goods allowed into Gaza makes a full-blown humanitarian crisis even less likely. Unlike Oil-for-Food, where each contract for requested goods was checked by committees and ruled on individually, it appears that Israel will allow all goods into Gaza except for those specifically prohibited according to an established list of military and dual-use items. This should greatly streamline the entire process.

The problem in Gaza, as it was in Iraq, is one of distribution. If Hamas has control over the goods coming in, it has the opportunity to reward its friends and punish its enemies. It can also enrich itself through black market transactions, and may even decide to cause artificial shortages in order to increase the appearance of suffering for the benefit of international observers.

We have seen hints of Hamas’s cynical manipulation of humanitarian aid for ideological purposes as it initially refused to accept delivery of humanitarian goods on board the ironically named “Freedom Flotilla” that was boarded by Israeli commandos on May 31. The clear implication was that Hamas was less concerned with the well being of its citizens than with breaking the blockade in order to obtain weapons and strengthen its own political position.

There are two related issues stemming from increased goods being allowed into Gaza:

1. Since resources are fungible, every dollar of food aid provided by the outside world means one less dollar that Hamas will have to spend in order to assist its constituents, and therefore one more dollar that Hamas can spend on preparing for its next military encounter with Israel.

2. Part of the reason that Israel limited the flow of goods to Gaza was the hope that the resulting hardship might weaken grass roots support for Hamas and lead to a possible overthrow of the government. As harsh as this may sound, easing the plight of everyday Gazans by increasing the supply of daily necessities and rejuvenating Gaza’s economy substantially reduces the likelihood that this will occur. Hamas seems set to remain in power for a long time to come. (Interestingly, it has been said that the introduction of the Oil-for-Food Program in late 1996 was a key turning point for the survival of Saddam’s regime. (See the final report of the Iraq Survey Group, also known as the “Duelfer Report,” released on September 30, 2004.) The program rescued Baghdad’s economy from a terminal decline created by sanctions. The regime quickly came to see that Oil-for-Food could be corrupted to acquire foreign exchange both to undermine sanctions and to provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development.)

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has recommended that European foreign ministers visit Gaza. Lieberman must hope that the visiting officials will come away with a better understanding of the complexities of the situation, as well as a recognition that conditions are not nearly as dire as the world had been led to believe. The only way this goal will be achieved, however, is if the officials have free access to all segments of Gaza society, and if their tour is conducted by objective, independent guides without the presence or interference of Hamas operatives. Even then, it is unclear whether they will be able to obtain accurate information from Gazans who will fear Hamas reprisals as soon as the visiting officials depart.

It has been suggested by some that an outside organization take over responsibility for inspecting cargo destined for Gaza through Israel’s land crossings. The efficacy of such a plan is problematic. One need only look at the virtually non-existent enforcement of UNSC Resolution 1701 (prohibiting re-armament of Hizbullah following the Second Lebanon War) by international forces to understand why Israel is hesitant to entrust this vital function to anyone but its own inspectors.

Where to from here?

Just as in Iraq under the Oil-for-Food Program, the critical issue for aid to Gaza remains one of distribution control. In public diplomacy terms, this concept is referred to as “the last three feet.” The person or organization that stands face-to-face with the aid recipient is best able to guarantee that adequate aid is distributed freely, fairly, and with no strings attached. Ceding that responsibility to a ruthless regime whose primary goal is to remain in power poses the risk that conditions for segments of the suffering population will deteriorate, while Hamas’s grasp on the reins of power will be strengthened.

Some people have recommended that limitations on goods allowed to enter Gaza be tightened rather than relaxed in order to increase public pressure on Hamas to alter its harsh anti-Israel stance. For example, Israel could reduce or cut off entirely fuel and electricity supplies. Evaluation of this recommendation is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that the Israeli Government has decided to expand the type and amount of goods allowed into Gaza for humanitarian purposes in an effort to reduce international pressure for entirely lifting the blockade.

A multifaceted course of action is therefore essential. Israel must take the following steps if it wishes to improve Gazans’ living conditions while maintaining reasonable security safeguards for its own citizens:

• Process humanitarian goods crossings – including close inspection for possible contraband – through Israeli land as expeditiously as possible. In order to rehabilitate successfully its standing in the world, Israel must not only do good; it must be seen to be doing good.

• Insist on a fully transparent internationally controlled distribution system for all goods entering Gaza. All Gazans should receive their fair share of humanitarian supplies, with none being diverted for improper use by Hamas.

• Demand closure of the illegal tunnel system. With the expansion of operations at Israel’s land transit facilities, tunnels can no longer be justified as conduits for essential humanitarian goods. The only reasons for continued tunnel operation – enrichment and arming of Hamas – are totally unacceptable.

• Maintain the naval blockade to prevent importation of weapons for use against Israel. All ships approaching Gaza must be inspected, with humanitarian goods arriving by sea to be transferred to and processed through land crossings. Ships attempting to break the blockade need not carry weapons in order to achieve their ultimate goal. Once Israel allows any ships to land in Gaza without inspection, there will be no turning back. Israel will never again be able to claim that a blockade is legal or necessary. At that point, the Gaza port will be open for arms shipments whenever Iran and Hamas so choose – whether the next ship or the ship after that.