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Gaza: New year, same old despair Open in fullscreen

Alice Gray

Gaza: New year, same old despair

The besieged coastal enclave was again devastated in this summer's bombardment [Alice Gray/al-Araby]

Date of publication: 31 December, 2014

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Desperation mounts in war-torn Gaza as UN Reconstruction Mechanism hinders flow of materials.

Amjad Shawa is the head of the Palestinian NGO network, PNGON. He puffs dejectedly on a cigarette as he explains the worsening crisis.

"Israel didn't destroy the present of the Palestinians - they destroyed the future," he said. 

"Gaza is suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in its history," he adds. "70 percent are food insecure. 80 percent became dependent on aid. Unemployment is over 50 percent."

During the 51-day Israeli onslaught in the summer of 2014, Gaza was devastated by attacks from air, ground and sea.  Much damage was done to civilian infrastructure, with an estimated total of 115,000 houses being partially or totally destroyed, according to the Minister of Housing and Public Works, Dr Moffeed al-Hassina. 

An estimated 100,000 Gazans are displaced due to the war, with 20,000 seeking shelter in UN schools, while still more have built makeshift shelters close to their destroyed homes or moved to rented accomodation.

     They are living with more than 40 people to a room in the schools.

- Dr Moffeed al-Hassina, Gaza housing minister



Humiliation

"They are living with more than 40 people to a room in the schools," says Hassina. "Men, women and children, all together. It is very humiliating for them to live in such conditions and people are getting sick. They need another life."
 
Some international agencies have housed displaced people in caravans and containers. Al-Araby visited a caravan site in Hosaa neighbourhood, which was hit hard during the most recent bombardment. 

"The agencies put us in these caravans and then abandoned us," one female resident told al-Araby. "We don't have electricity or water, and now the caravan is falling to pieces."

It's true. The ceiling leaks and the floor is rotten and sagging. Sewage trickles from the back, forming fetid, stinking pools.

"I built an extension with my own money," a male resident says. "We sleep there, and just keep some of our things in the caravan. But at night it is freezing. Each person has five blankets on them, but we are still cold."

Amjad Shawa of PNGON explained. "The caravans are the worst solution that we have - it is an inhuman solution," he said. "We need something that people can live in, not suffer from."

Rebuilding efforts

But while displaced Gazans suffer and shiver through the winter, reconstruction efforts are failing to materialise.

"The construction industry is totally frozen," says Nabil Moaleq, head of the Palestinian Contractors Union. "It's now four months since the end of the war and all that we got through the [UN] mechanism is about 12,000 tonnes of cement. We could use that in one day."

Hassina, the housing minister, concurred. 

"To be honest, as a government, we don't have any real power to help our people... People are cursing the consensus government and we feel shame in front of them. Even for people who need to make small repairs - we cannot get them one bag of cement."

Blockade

Earlier this month, Oxfam reported "three months since the ceasefire, and nearly two months since the international community pledged $5.4 billion in aid, reconstruction of Gaza has barely begun and the Israeli blockade remains firmly in place".

According to Oxfam, "the amount of [construction materials] entering Gaza in the three months since the ceasefire is less than a third of the amount that entered Gaza in the three months immediately before the conflict – and just four percent of what used to enter Gaza before the blockade".

Power struggle

As bad as the housing crisis is, it is not exactly Gaza's only problem. The power station was also totally destroyed, leading to daily blackouts throughout the Strip. The hum of shops' backup generators accompanies every evening stroll through the streets of Gaza City. 

Even more disastrous perhaps is the damage to the water sector. 

     In the first two wars, the damage was limited to some wells and some pipelines. This time they directly targeted reservoirs.
- Monther Shoblak, Gaza water utility



"The damage from this war was the biggest we faced," Monther Shoblak, head of Gaza's water utility, told al-Araby. "In the first two wars, the damage was limited to some wells and some pipelines. This time they directly targeted reservoirs. I'm talking about facilities that used to contain a volume of around 3,000 to 5,000 cubic metres of water. 

"We also lost 25 wells and hundreds of kilometres of water and wastewater pipes and connections. But the most critical thing is that they targeted our employees… they killed 12 of our people while they were working."

The farming sector is also struggling to recover. Damage to greenhouses, trees and irrigation equipment during the war was extensive. 

"This war has been another massive shock," Chris Somerville, an agricultural relief worker, told al-Araby.  "The farmers were already in debt before the war, and they have no capital to reinvest... their confidence is smashed." 

   
Community leader Ayub al-Kafarna
can see few solutions [Alice Gray/al-Araby]



Few solutions

"Where are the solutions?" asks Ayub Al Kafarna, the muqtar, or community leader, of Beit Hanoun, a northern farming community that was decimated during the war. 

"The aid agencies send us irrigation pipes and valves. This is not what we need - we need security. How many times can we start again?"

It is clear from the most cursory inspection of Gaza that conditions are deteriorating and desperation is mounting. 

In March 2014, before the war, the UN issued a report warning of the severe humanitarian consequences of fuel and electricity shortages in Gaza, and the worsening conditions due to Israel's siege and Egypt's closure of the tunnels. 

Bad to worse

In fact, the humanitarian situation has been desperate in Gaza for many years, and has worsened severely during the eight years since the Israeli blockade was imposed. 

"People think that the water crisis originates in the war.  No. The water situation in Gaza was predictable and we have been carrying out studies for two decades," Monther Shoblak of the Water Utility told al-Araby

"But we can say that the wars, the siege, the incursions and the conflict accelerated the deterioration of the water sector. In the past three years, UN reports confirmed our worst fears. By 2016, Gaza will not be liveable."

Despite these facts, in September 2014, the UN brokered a deal between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Unity government to agree a "Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism" to monitor construction materials entering the Strip. 

It is this mechanism that is hindering the flow of materials, residents say, and people's sense of disappointment and betrayal runs deep. 

"The UN became part of imposing this siege… through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism," says Amjad Shawa of PNGON. "Not only by facilitating, but also taking part physically, becoming a tool. Through controlling, and monitoring and above all by accepting that the siege is the destiny of the Palestinians.

"We wanted the UN to keep its neutrality, to leave the quartet, to be on the side of the victims, not to reward the occupation. They considered the security of the Israelis, and they forgot about the people who lost everything… It's a real failure on the part of the international community.  And we are paying the price of this failure.

"I can tell you, believe me, the condition we are living in now is worse than the war."

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