Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 2 March 2015

Gaza in hellish conditions, 6 months on 

Half a year after the ceasefire, life in Gaza is still a living hell, as the promised aid did not come and homeless children die of winter cold


Six months after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, life in Gaza is still a living hell. 

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are still homeless or live in the rubble of the 20,000 houses that were destroyed and 80,000 others damaged by Israeli bombs and artillery fire.

A UN official estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are in homes that are completely uninhabitable or very badly damaged.

Although USD 5.4 billion was pledged by donor countries, very little of that aid has arrived. Moreover, very few building materials are allowed into Gaza, due to the continuing Israeli blockade.

In a BBC-TV report on 25 February, the journalist Lyse Doucet showed shots of people barely surviving in the ruins of their bombed-out homes, with signs put up on top of piles of rubble to indicate  the names of the families who lived there, in the hope that one day someone would help them reclaim and rebuild their houses.

The most horrifying, and most pitiful, shot of that report was that of the baby Dapida, who had frozen to death in January amidst the ruins of what had been the family home because there was no heating in the present winter.

The baby had been born just before the ceasefire began on 26 August.  He survived the war but not the homelessness and the winter cold. 

Everyone likes to talk about the children but in fact no one helps the children in Gaza, said his grief-stricken mother, lamenting the non-arrival of the promised aid.

Leaders of dozens of countries, including US State Secretary John Kerry, attended a ‘reconstruction conference’ on 12 October in Cairo and pledged USD 5.4 billion for rebuilding Gaza and other Palestinian areas.  The Palestinians had estimated that USD 4 billion is needed for Gaza’s reconstruction.

But only a tiny bit of the pledged funds arrived. That, and the blockade restricting the inflow of materials, is why most homes are not rebuilt.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said the region was in dire need that countries that tried to link aid to demilitarization in Gaza were in danger of enforcing collective punishment on Palestinians.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said children had frozen to death over the winter, with parents and grandparents blaming the deaths on lack of donations.

The charity group Oxfam also called for the opening of Gaza for aid and materials. Its spokesperson Alun McDonald called for ‘an immediate and complete end to the blockade of Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population’.

A statement from 30 international aid agencies expressed alarm about the limited progress on rebuilding lives in Gaza and tackling the root causes of the conflict, which they said made a return to hostilities inevitable.

They said that since July, the situation has deteriorated dramatically, with 100,000 Palestinians remaining displaced, power cuts of 18 hours a day, non-payment of government workers. The most vulnerable, including the 1 million children, have experienced unimaginable suffering in three conflicts in six years and over 400,000 need psychological support.

With severe restrictions on their movement, the 1.8 million Palestinians are ‘trapped in the coastal enclave, with no hope for the future.’

The agencies are outraged that little of the USD 5.4 billion pledged has reached Gaza, resulting in the stopping of cash assistance to families that lost everything.  They also criticised Israel which, as the occupying power, bears the main duty.  It must comply with its obligations under international law, and in particular it must lift the blockade.

The aid deficit has hit UNRWA, the UN agency operating in Gaza for relief and  reconstruction.  In January, it suspended its cash assistance programme supporting repairs and providing rental subsidies because it ran out of funds.

When the USD5.4 billion aid was pledged, UNRWA came up with a USD720 million plan but received its own pledges of only USD135 million.

Its Gaza director Robert Turner said: “The population of Gaza is exhausted, frustrated and angry.  The small remnants of hope have been extinguished, without any hope for political change and lifting of the blockade.

“The international community is failing to provide the people of Gaza with the bare minimum.  Thousands of families are waiting, but we have no money.”

UNRWA’s Gunness, who last July famously showed outrage on TV when a UN-run school was destroyed by artillery fire, killing 19 refugees there, gave graphic scenes he witnessed on a recent Gaza visit.

In a small shack with a plastic roof that leaked, he saw the room where a 40-day old baby, Salma, had died on 21 January after freezing rain fell through the roof on her the whole night and her trembling body turned blue.  The body had been frozen like ice-cream, said her mother.

A cousin of Salma, a 50-day boy, also died of hypothermia in a UN shelter which was freezing cold.

Although the immediate task is to rebuild the houses and infrastructure, Gaza also faces massive socio-economic problems such as 47 per cent unemployment and blackouts of 18 hours a day while 90 per cent of all water is undrinkable.

“What is the point of reconstructing Gaza if it cannot have a functioning economy?” said Gunness in an interview.  Gaza needs to import raw materials to make things and trade, otherwise it will be condemned for decades more to the life support system of aid.

From all these reports, we have to conclude that the Gaza population is living in hell-like conditions, half a year after the military war stopped.

The houses are still not rebuilt, the promised funds have largely not arrived, basic needs are not satisfied, the assistance to the most needy has mainly stopped, and frustration and anger are growing.

Even if the widespread military attacks on the population have stopped, “war” in other forms is still being waged, with dire economic and social effects.

Leaders in countries that had pledged support months ago should act now to get the funds moving and to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and to live up to its obligations as an occupying power.

As the aid agencies and the UN have warned, allowing the present situation to continue and to deteriorate further will worsen the humanitarian crisis of Gaza and make more conflict situations likely.