Gaza: No safe shelter

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 27 Jul 2014

A humanitarian truce is overdue but an end of the siege on Gaza is increasingly a humanitarian-must, says aid worker

People walk through the site of an overnight Israeli strike at the Salahaldein mosque
People walk through the site of an overnight Israeli strike at the Salahaldein mosque, seen with the hole, center, in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 24, 2014 (Photo: AP)

“There is nowhere to go – and nowhere to hide; the situation is really very difficult and it is not just that people don’t have clean water, electricity in their houses but it is also that they cannot be safe in their houses or find a shelter that is firmly safe,” said Arwa Mhanna, Gaza-based aid worker.

Working with the humanitarian organisation Oxfam, Mhanna is full of stories about the hardships that the residents of the impoverished and suffocated Strip have faced during the 18 days of war.

“There are so many grievances that one could share but the hardest I think is this sense that there is no safe shelter for anyone – not really; people leave their houses and pursue refuge in places that should not be targets in any war like a hospital for example but then a hospital is targeted,” Mhanna said.

She spoke to Ahram Online over the phone from Gaza hours before the Israeli army hit an UNRWA school where civilians, including women, children and the elderly, have sought shelter. The attack killed 16 and left 200 wounded.

“Think of the fact that this sentiment of no safe place to go to when there are about 100 to 130 thousand displaced individuals who had left their houses either because these houses have been hit or because they fear that their houses would be targeted,” Mhanna said.

According to Mhanna, the thousands of people who had been jammed inside the yards of schools, mosques, churches and hospitals are also short of basic living requirements.

“Clean potable water is a serious crisis for the vast majority of the around 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza – over 80 per cent of those people depend on the bottled water for drinking and cooking – for them there is no such thing as tap water,” this aid worker said.

Aid and humanitarian organisations working in Gaza, Mhanna said, are trying very hard to provide for all those who need clean and potable water, but with the siege that has been imposed on Gaza for over seven years and with three wars in the span of six years “things are becoming really difficult.”

In 2007 Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and since then Israel has imposed a full siege on Gaza. For its part, Egypt, which has the one non-Israeli controlled outlet for Gaza, chose to put firm restrictions on the operation of the Rafah crossing.

In 2008-09, 2012, and this year, Israel has waged very aggressive wars on Gaza during which, according to UN and independent fact-finding reports, violations of international law have been committed. This week, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pilay, said that it could be argued that war crimes had been committed during the war on Gaza.

“When all is said and done, you have a population that was always faced with considerable economic, development and health challenges who has to put up with three consecutive wars without the capacity to rebuild or recuperate,” Mhanna said.

Today, she argued, a humanitarian truce is desperately needed “if only to allow the rescue teams to get the bodies of those who died in the shelling from underneath the rubble before Gaza hits a devastating health problem.” Tomorrow, whenever that tomorrow may come and hopefully sooner rather than later, she added, the siege imposed on Gaza would have to come to an end so that the houses, the schools and the rest of civilian facilities including water and electricity grids could be repaired.

“The incredible shortage of electricity is taking a serious toll at the already weakened water sanitation stations and it might be soon that we see the total failure of these sanitation stations,” this aid worker said.

Mhanna also shared concern over the devastation that has hit the sewage system in Gaza and the early signs of the flooding of sewage into underground water. “We are looking a health disaster in the face and this is happening while Gaza is under a firm siege,” she lamented.

The end of siege, she argued, would not only be about easier access to reconstruction and relief material as is hoped, Mhanna said. It would also, she added, be about the revival of a semblance of economy.

“Farmers have been unable to attend to their work and those who have been producing have been unable to sell or export; fishermen can barely do any fishing due to the restrictions imposed on the sea; it is like everything is put on hold really,” she said.

But the lives of people in Gaza are the most fundamental reason that Arwa says requires an end to the siege that goes beyond the humanitarian truce or a ceasefire.

“Health services, education and all basic services are barely functioning; they are worn out and time is running out; we are also talking about a population that feels isolated, targeted and ignored; this nightmare has to come to an end,” Mhanna said.

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