Gaza: the struggle to pick up the pieces
26-02-2009 Operational Update
More than a month after the end of the war, people in the Gaza Strip are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Tens of thousands of people have had their houses partially or completely destroyed, while thousands remain without access to running water.
" What can we do other than wait for someone to help us? " asked a woman from East Jabaliya. In her family of 12, the men are all unemployed. Their house has been reduced to rubble, and all of their goats, who could have generated a bit of income, were killed during the air strikes. " We have no choice but to wait – all we own now is the clothes we are wearing and the mattresses and blankets we have been given. Someone will have to help us get on from here, " she said.
According to the results of assessments that the ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society have conducted in the hardest hit areas of the Gaza Strip, the conflict destroyed more than 2,800 houses completely and almost 1,900 partially, leaving tens of thousands homeless. So far, the ICRC has given plastic sheeting to cover broken windows and holes in walls, kitchen sets, mattresses and blankets to 72,500 people.
Emergency assistance for those who suffered the greatest loss during the conflict will not suffice. In order to help Gazans get their lives back on track, commercial imports of goods for rebuilding are sorely needed, as are machinery and spare parts. Construction materials from Israel are at present still not allowed into Gaza.
Daily life a struggle amid increasing poverty
Outside Gaza's worst-hit neighbourhoods, one almost has the sense that things are back to normal. But even in areas unscathed by shelling and bombardments many families are struggling to make ends meet.
Poverty rates were already standing at 70 per cent before the recent hostilities, leaving many families struggling to afford a healthy diet. Because of the conflict, even more breadwinners have lost their jobs and source of income. Many workers at small factories have been laid off, as have many agricultural workers, for example those employed at chicken farms that are now destroyed.
Because of Israeli-imposed restrictions on imports into Gaza, the price of everyday goods remains high, especially for the poorest. There are also shortages. A refilled cylinder of cooking gas sells for 100-150 shekels (around 24-36 US dollars) on the black market, an amount many families cannot afford. The price on the legal market is lower, but it can take several months before the gas is available. Poor families try to make do with firewood, which they collect, but even this is scarce in the Gaza Strip.
Items like diapers, laundry detergent, yoghurt and cheese have become impossible to find. Petrol stations have started closing down again because of a lack of fuel. Meat has become even more of a luxury, with the price of chicken doubling to 17 shekels (around 4 US dollars) for a kilo. Fish is scarce and expensive.
A hard blow for farming
Agriculture is a lifeline for Gaza as farming families make up some 27 per cent of the population. Approximately 43 per cent of farmland lies within the buffer zone imposed by Israel that extends up to one kilometre into Gazan territory from the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. Over the past 18 months, the Israel Defense Forces have regularly carried out military operations in the buffer zone that resulted in destruction of the fields and harvests. Farmers working on their land in the zone risk being detained or shot at.
Since closure was imposed in June 2007, followed by restrictions on exports such as strawberries, cut flowers and cherry tomatoes, agricultural production has continued to decline. Farmers have typically seen their income cut by half.
The recent fighting dealt an additional blow to farmers as fruit trees, olive groves and large swathes of other cultivated land were ruined. Many irrigation systems, water wells, warehouses and greenhouses were damaged or destroyed. These losses have further impoverished the population.
A health-care crisis
During the latest war, health and medical facilities were stretched to their limits and were only able to cope thanks to emergency aid. Many suffered significant damage, sometimes from direct hits during Israeli attacks. Certain drugs, for instance for cancer treatment, and certain types of X-ray films are still lacking. The stock of disposables is also dwindling. Vital equipment is often outdated, and it takes months to get equipment and spare parts into the Gaza Strip, if it is allowed at all. Electrical power supplied through the network remains unreliable, and backup generators often lack proper maintenance. This has had a direct and lasting impact on the health of the population.
Transferring patients in need of specialized medical care to facilities outside Gaza remains difficult. No patients have been transferred to Egypt since the closure of the Rafah crossing on 5 February. Only slightly more than 100 patients have been permitted to leave through the Erez crossing into Israel for treatment outside the Gaza Strip in recent weeks. This represents less than half the average number of those transferred before December 27.
Since mid-January, approximately 100 new amputees have been registered at the Artificial Limb and Polio Centre in Gaza City, and 10 have started treatment.
The ICRC is providing support for the Artificial Limb and Polio Centre in Gaza City by giving it supplies and expertise and upgrading its facilities. It is also delivering medical supplies and equipment to hospitals in Gaza on a regular basis. It has installed electrical sterilization systems in Beit Hanun and Kamal Edwan Hospitals, in the north of Gaza, and provided washing machines and other laundry equipment for Nasser and Tal Al Sultan Hospitals, in the south.
Access to water remains a challenge
Water and sanitation infrastructure remains in a perilous state as the Israeli closure on Gaza is still making it almost impossible to import such essential materials as pipes and spare parts. Thousands of people still without access to running water depend on water trucked to their homes.
In Jabaliya and Beit Hanun, in the north of the Strip, about 200,000 inhabitants have only limited access to potable water as several wells were destroyed during the hostilities. Even if the necessary materials were available, it would take several months to restore the water supply to acceptable levels.
Some neighbourhoods in the Gaza Strip also remain without electricity because of a lack of new transformers. The equipment has already been purchased but authorization from the Israeli authorities is needed to bring it into Gaza. Most hospitals in the Gaza Strip continue to rely on generators during power cuts.
After a month of emergency repairs, essential infrastructure is now functioning at the same level as it was before the conflict erupted in late December. This is insufficient. Construction materials and spare parts must be imported urgently to proceed with repairs and reconstruction that can prevent breakdowns in services, to ensure that at least minimal maintenance is carried out, and to slow down the steady deterioration in infrastructure.
The ICRC employs 85 people in Gaza, including 20 expatriates. The organization has maintained a continuous presence there since 1967.