The ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, now in its third year, has triggered a ‘protracted human dignity crisis’ with devastating humanitarian consequences, according to a new report released on Monday by the United Nations relief wing.
Entitled ‘Locked In: The Humanitarian Impact of Two Years of Blockade on the Gaza Strip’ the report, prepared by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says: ‘At the heart of this crisis is the degradation in the living conditions of the population, caused by the erosion of livelihoods and the gradual decline in the state of infrastructure, and the quality of vital services in the areas of health, water and sanitation, and education’.
The blockade, imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, includes the closure of Karni, one of the largest and best equipped commercial crossings; sweeping restrictions on the import of industrial, agricultural and construction materials; the suspension of almost all exports; and a general ban on the movement of Palestinians through Erez, the only passenger crossing to the West Bank.
‘The denial of Palestinians’ right to leave Gaza, or to move freely to the West Bank, particularly when their lives, physical integrity, or basic freedoms are under threat, is another key component of the current human dignity crisis. The blockade has “locked in”1.5 million people in what is one of the most densely populated areas on earth,’ notes the OCHA report.
It also finds that the blockade has resulted in the devastation of livelihoods, rising food insecurity, a protracted energy crisis and a deterioration of water and sanitation infrastructure, among other issues.
The lack of essential imports, including raw materials, coupled with the ban on exports, has ‘decimated’ economic activity in the private sector, where 120,000 jobs have been lost.
Also, except for a short interval during the ceasefire brokered by Egypt in 2008, almost no construction materials have been allowed into Gaza through the official crossings, compared to an average of 7,400 truckloads imported every month between January and May 2007.
The ban on the import of building materials has prevented the reconstruction of most of the 3,540 homes destroyed during Operation Cast Lead – launched by Israel in December 2008 in response to rocket attacks by militants in Gaza.
The report notes that Israel has allowed entry into Gaza of just a small number of truckloads over the past three months carrying goods previously prevented from entering, such as limited construction, water, sanitation and education materials. ‘While these are welcome steps, their actual impact when compared to the current level of needs in Gaza remains negligible,’ OCHA says.
The report adds that the UN and others have repeatedly urged the Israeli government to remove the restrictions on Gaza’s border, to allow free access to agricultural areas within Gaza, and to allow unrestricted fishing in Gaza’s territorial waters. ‘These are the urgent first steps needed to start the reconstruction of homes and infrastructure, the revival of the economy and the restoration of human dignity in Gaza,’ it states.
Meanwhile, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on Monday launched an appeal for $181 million to maintain its support to refugees in Gaza.
The appeal, which coincides with the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, covers food assistance, job creation opportunities, and cash assistance for the poorest of the poor. Other immediate urgent needs include the rehabilitation of UNRWA education and health facilities.
‘A generous response to this appeal will immediately mitigate the downward spiral of destitution and hopelessness facing many refugees as Ramadan approaches,’ stated the agency. However, this destitution and hopelessness can, and will, only be curtailed by lifting the siege on Gaza, opening borders in both directions, and allowing the freedom of movement of people.’
l The recent sight of thousands of kites in the clear summer Gaza sky, setting a new world record, is one of the many pockets of unexpected joy that propels the work of Johanne van Dijk, a United Nations aid worker in the area.
During the Summer Games, organised by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for the past three years, the record for the greatest number of kites flown simultaneously was shattered when thousands of Gazan children gathered to hoist almost 4,000 kites in the air late last month.
Ms van Dijk paid tribute to ‘the incredible resilience of people, sometimes against all else, who still maintain that very remarkable and admirable spirit to go on and to try to provide a decent life for their children.’
Speaking to the UN News Centre on the eve of the first annual World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, she added that ‘the sense of humour that people have here has been quite exemplary . . . in a situation that at times seems very hopeless’.
As an analysis and evaluation officer with UNRWA, which is mandated to assist over one million Palestinian refugees in Gaza and educates 200,000 Gazan children, van Dijk’s work focuses on children with special needs and on boosting education standards in the area as part of a scheme known as the Schools of Excellence Programme.
That initiative, launched in 2006, seeks to improve educational levels, which have sharply declined following years of occupation and the closure of crossing points. Based on discussions with teachers, students and others, UNRWA has implemented remedial summer programmes and is also tackling the system of automatically upgrading students, many of whom were unable to attend school due to conflict, to the next level, regardless of their academic progress.
Van Dijk points to the crossing closures, which she said have ‘touched every segment of society in Gaza’ and triggered increased poverty. The rise in unemployment means that ‘kids come to school hungry, and that’s why a school feeding programme is very important because they obviously cannot concentrate in the classrooms any more.’
Her work takes her into the field, either into schools or into refugee camps, on a daily basis, and she is ‘always welcomed very, very warmly by both my colleagues in schools and the students’.
Israel’s military offensive against the tiny Strip of land earlier this year killed over 1,400 people and injured 5,000 others, also reducing homes, schools, hospitals and market places to rubble. That was one of the worst times that I’ve seen in Gaza, the extent of the violence, the not knowing where the next bomb would fall,’ van Dijk said. ‘I think that’s something that has terribly, terribly affected the kids.’
UNRWA reopened its schools (some of which, housing 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), were bombed) shortly after the end of the ceasefire was declared. That move was ‘the only way to get kids back into a certain sense of normalisation after what they’ve all been through because of the war,’ van Dijk said.