A blog on the crisis in Gaza from our Associate, Embrace
Stephen Tunstall, Embrace’s Programmes and Partnerships Manager for Israel & Palestine, visits Gaza regularly and has been shocked by the downward spiral of conditions there:
The question I’m asked most in my job is ‘What is Gaza like?’ Since returning from my most recent visit there in May, I have been saying the same thing to everyone that asks. It is the worst I have seen it. In the four years I have been visiting regularly, it has never been this desperate. This, of course, is not taking into account the Israeli invasion and bombardment that killed over 1,000 civilians, more than half of them women and children, in summer 2014. But outside of active conflict, it has never been worse.
What surprised me this time was how rapid the deterioration has been in the two months’ since my previous visit. In March things were desperate as always, but they appeared relatively stable.
Then in April, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) told Israel it would stop paying for the electricity it supplies to Gaza, so Israel turned the electricity off. There is now only three to four hours of mains electricity each day meaning food can’t be refrigerated so people have to buy food every day, which costs more. It means people with disabilities, pregnant women, and the elderly, can’t access their homes above ground level because lifts and lights don’t work. For hospitals and schools, it means they’re now spending large parts of their income buying fuel for generators, and this will stop altogether once Gaza’s fuel reserves run out in a month, inevitably leading to patient deaths. It means the sewage plant no longer works so raw sewage is dumped into waterways untreated, increasing the risk of disease and infection, and further polluting Gaza’s obsolete natural water supply.
To compound matters, the PNA then cut the salaries of tens of thousands of its employees in Gaza by 30%, and they will gradually reduce to zero. These employees were fired by Hamas when it took control of Gaza in 2007, but the PNA salaries had remained a lifeline. Not only did they provide for whole families, they were a major source of cash in the local economy which helped sustain the livelihoods of many more people. The desperate economic situation has led to a rise in violent crime and burglary. This particularly affects Gaza’s tiny Christian minority who number less than a thousand among the two million population. A lot of Christians in Gaza live alone with just their spouse, without the protection of a large family and powerful connections, and this makes them soft targets for criminals.
People are scared. Scared of another war, scared of crime, scared about whether they can withstand this latest assault on their dignity and livelihoods.
Five years ago the UN warned that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, and two years ago it reported that ‘almost all of the population [has been sent into] destitution and dependence on international humanitarian aid’. Except for a few wealthy city states, Gaza is the most densely populated territory on earth. All of these factors mean Gaza should be, by anyone’s interpretation, already unlivable. That the population endure is remarkable and a testament to the strength of the Palestinian people and their will to go on living.
One thing Gaza needs is international friends. Friends who will speak up for basic human rights, friends who will campaign for an end to Israel’s decade-long blockade, and friends who will support the population’s efforts to go on living. Embrace’s supporters have been doing just that.
Embrace has trebled our support to humanitarian and development programmes in Gaza.
These programmes includes a project providing vulnerable communities with free primary healthcare, a child health and nutrition project ensuring thousands of babies are screened and treated for malnutrition and anaemia, and a livelihoods project proving paid work placements for hundreds of unemployed people within the health sector – one of the only areas of economic growth in Gaza thanks to new donor-funded hospitals and clinics. In addition, we have recently started new projects promoting better access to healthcare for women trying for or expecting babies, improving the infrastructure and staff capacity at Gaza’s Christian hospital, and a project supporting young people’s personal development and social engagement.
All of these projects are run by Gaza’s remaining Christians, Embrace’s local partners. They do an incredible and brave job, motivated by love for their fellow citizens.
While these projects can be lifesaving and help people as much as possible to live a dignified life – pursue education and training, keep themselves and their family healthy – we are under no illusion that they are in any way providing a solution.
Responding charitably to the crisis in Gaza is a necessary but wholly insufficient response. Merely helping people to endure an inhumane environment for longer without trying to change the environment is indefensible. The humanitarian crisis and injustice in Gaza is not caused by natural conditions or even the global economy. It is a political crisis with a political solution.
2017 marks 50 years since Israel’s occupation of Palestine began, and 10 years since it enforced a blockade around the Gaza Strip.
Until the Israeli occupation of Palestine ends, there will be no peace and the people of Gaza, in particular, will continue to suffer and die needlessly as a result of poverty and violence.
While we need to continue giving generously to Gaza, we need even more to campaign for an end to the blockade and military occupation. Human rights are not a gift to be granted to the Palestinians in some peace agreement that may never materialise, human rights are an entitlement that must be realised immediately. Politicians and church leaders have spoken optimistically about progress on recent visits to Palestine and Israel.
I hope some of that progress is in evidence in Gaza before my next visit, because people’s lives depend on it now more than ever.