The humanitarian emergency in Gaza "A shocking and shameful situation"

30 April 2008

International Development Committee, House of Commons

30 April 2008

By John Ging, Director UNRWA Operations Gaza

Mr. Chairman,

The two principal issues underpinning the shocking and shameful humanitarian situation in Gaza are violence and the lack of access for people and supplies to get into and out of the Gaza Strip.

When it comes to violence and the pervasive sense of fear that it has created in every household, the statistics speak for themselves. The casualty figures for 2008 in Gaza are a total of 344 Palestinians killed and 756 injured. In those figures are the deaths of 60 undisputedly innocent children with a further 175 injured children.

It is also very important when referring to the security challenges faced by the civilian population in Gaza, that we condemn the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel on an almost daily basis. These rockets terrorize the civilian population within their range. Over 2647 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel so far this year. A total of 3 Israeli civilians were killed and 20 injured as a result that rocket fire.

The second issue underpinning the humanitarian misery of the population of Gaza is the severe restrictions limiting the access for people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip.

The entire civilian population is affected by these sanctions and every family is struggling to cope with a personal crisis as a result. The pathetic humanitarian state was clearly visible on 23 January when tens of thousands of desperate Palestinians broke out of Gaza through the boundary wall with Egypt. They did so, in large part to buy food, medicine and other vital and basic household supplies. Repeated warnings of an imminent social explosion went unheeded and a desperate population was left with no alternative other than to take such dramatically desperate action.

But the respite was short lived and the Gaza Strip is now under an even tighter sanction regime than ever before, fuel supplies of diesel and petrol in steady decline for months have now run out completely.

No diesel or petrol has entered Gaza since the 10th of April. Prior to that, the amount of fuel entering Gaza has been less and less every month once again the figures speak for themselves

In March of this year 3.8 liters million of diesel fuel and 340,000 liters of petrol was transferred from Israel into Gaza. Compare this with over 9.1 million liters of diesel and 1.4 million liters of petrol that was supplied in August 2007.

So in March Gaza received only 23% of the petrol and little more than 40% of the diesel that it had received a few months ago.

What this means in reality is unbearable hardship and a looming public health crisis.

The streets of Gaza are virtually empty of cars today, the few vehicles moving are those who have made a dangerous conversion to run on cooking gas. This is not a stage managed crisis; it is reality for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. The ordinary people are paying the price, doctors and teachers, children and patients all walking, that is if they can walk the distance to the clinics and schools. 20% of the ambulances are not responding to emergencies as they have run out of fuel, the remainder are running critically low. Even UN fuel supplies were cut off forcing an unprecedented 3 day halt to food distribution operations affecting over one million Gazans. The restoration of a weekly supply to the UN, has allowed the resumption of operations, however they remain vulnerable to further stoppages. On the other hand there has been absolutely no resupply to any other service or sector in Gaza.

The vital public services, including health, water and sanitation are in a pathetic state. Today there is no solid waste collection in over 50% of the Municipalities in Gaza as there is no fuel for the rubbish trucks. 60,000 cubic meters of raw and partially treated Sewage is pumped out to sea every day, again simply because the treatment plants have run out of fuel. 15 diesel powered water wells have shut down completely, leaving 70,000 people without water in their homes. Gaza’s Public Water authority now report that because of the regular power cuts and a lack of diesel for back up generators, 30% of Gazans having running water for only four to eight hours per week, 40% once every four days and the remaining 30% every other day. The sewage at Sheik Redwan in northern Gaza City and Jabalia refugee camp are overflowing into lagoons in residential areas which were designed for storm water. In Jabalia, the amount is three million litres of raw sewage in the last week of April alone. The list is endless, the misery immeasurable and there is no tangible basis at the moment to hope that the situation will not continue to decline.

The economy has also collapsed as no raw materials for manufacturing or construction have been allowed into Gaza since June 07, this has resulted in almost 80,000 people loosing the dignity of work, bringing the number now queuing for UN food handouts to over one million. $213 million dollars in United Nations Humanitarian and development projects are on hold because construction materials cannot enter Gaza. Equally, because of the prohibition on importing printing paper, 200,000 refugee children returned to UNRWA schools without their text books for most of the month of September and again at the start of the second semester in January. All too often, solutions to the most pressing, basic and obvious humanitarian needs if delivered at all, are delivered late and only after the inevitable crisis occurs. 90% of Gaza’s 3,900 industrial companies have closed since June 2007, resulting in 80% of Gazan’s now living below the poverty line.

The severe restrictions on freedom of movement for the people to enter and leave Gaza has created an acute sense of imprisonment which has had a pervasive and devastating effect on the psychology of the population. The pain, anguish and despair for the families affected cannot be adequately conveyed in words, whether it is the sick, students or migrant workers, their plight exemplifies the certain fact, that these punitive sanctions are indiscriminately collective in their impact and counterproductive to their stated purpose.

In the deprived living conditions that is now the daily reality for Gazans, parents are loosing their personal battle to insulate and protect their children from developing a mindset and outlook reflective of their environment. Plummeting academic standards coupled with no realistic prospect of employment is fatally undermining their efforts.

While the imprisonment and impoverishment of the civilian population in Gaza in not the publicly stated policy objective, it is nonetheless its principal effect. History teaches us that peace is the dividend of economic wellbeing, while poverty and despair are the fertile ground for extremism and conflict.

The solution to reverse the current trend of human misery and violence in Gaza is access for people and supplies to get in and out of the Gaza Strip. This is the carefully judged assessment of the authors of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, those authors were Israel, Palestinian Authority and Egypt assisted by the United States of America. The solution that they identified together, was simple, open the crossings. However implementation is not simple, as it carries very real risks, so graphically evidenced by the 09th April terrorist attack on the fuel depot at Nahal Oz where two innocent Israeli civilian workers were killed. Nonetheless, risks must taken to restore a dignified and humane existence for the population of Gaza, it is their fundamental human right enshrined in international conventions. Abdication of responsibility to uphold the legal rights of Gaza’s civilian population means concession to the rule of the gun at the expense of the rule of law.

Urgent action is therefore needed right now, the reality on the ground in Gaza is evolving rapidly, to date all warnings have been ignored and yet inspite of the growing evidence of the predicted and predictable negative consequences of the current policies, there has been no change in approach. As a starting point, Gazans need effective principled humanitarian interventions. In essence this means, the protections proscribed in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights conventions. The absence of effective and credible mechanisms to hold decision makers, whose decisions impact on the lives of the civilian population of Gaza, accountable for their actions to International legal standards, is feeding an ever growing sense of injustice and despair. If the rule of law is not credibly and effectively restored to its rightful pre-eminent position in defining action in this conflict, then by what other measure should actions be judged?

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is shocking and the political failure to respond effectively and humanely is shameful.

Background Information

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 56 million.

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