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Published: Monday March 2, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday March 2, 2015 MYT 7:12:17 AM

Gaza under fire — six months on

HUNDREDS of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are still homeless or live in the rubble of the 20,000 houses that were destroyed and 80,000 others damaged by Israeli bombs and artillery fire.

A United Nations official estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are in homes that are completely uninhabitable or very badly damaged.

Although US$5.4bil (RM19.4bil) was pledged by donor countries, very little of that aid has arrived. Moreover, very few building materials are allowed into Gaza, due to the continuing Israeli blockade.

In a BBC-TV report on Feb 25, journalist Lyse Doucet showed shots of people barely surviving in the ruins of their bombed-out homes, with signs put up on top of piles of rubble to indicate the names of the families who lived there, in the hope that one day someone would help them reclaim and rebuild their houses.

The most horrifying, and most pitiful, shot of that report was that of the baby Dapida, who had frozen to death in January amidst the ruins of what had been the family home because there was no heating in the present winter.

The baby had been born just before the ceasefire began on Aug 26. He survived the war but not the homelessness and the winter cold.

Everyone likes to talk about the children but in fact no one helps the children in Gaza, said his grief-stricken mother, lamenting the non-arrival of the promised aid.

Leaders of dozens of countries, including US State Secretary John Kerry, attended a reconstruction conference on Oct 12 in Cairo and pledged US$5.4bil for rebuilding Gaza and other Palestinian areas. The Palestinians had estimated that US$4bil (RM14.4bil) is needed for Gaza’s reconstruction.

But only a tiny bit of the pledged funds arrived. That, and the blockade restricting the inflow of materials, is why most homes are not rebuilt.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said the region was in dire need and that countries that tried to link aid to demilitarisation in Gaza were in danger of enforcing collective punishment on Palestinians.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said children had frozen to death over the winter, with parents and grandparents blaming the deaths on lack of donations.

The charity group Oxfam also called for the opening of Gaza for aid and materials. Its spokesman Alun McDonald called for “an immediate and complete end to the blockade of Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment of the civilian population”.

A statement from 30 international aid agencies expressed alarm about the limited progress on rebuilding lives in Gaza and tackling the root causes of the conflict, which they said made a return to hostilities inevitable.

They said that since July, the situation has deteriorated dramatically, with 100,000 Palestinians remaining displaced, power cuts of 18 hours a day, and non-payment of government workers. The most vulnerable, including the one million children, have experienced unimaginable suffering in three conflicts in six years and over 400,000 need psychological support.

With severe restrictions on their movement, the 1.8 million Palestinians are “trapped in the coastal enclave, with no hope for the future”.

The agencies are outraged that little of the US$5.4bil pledged has reached Gaza, resulting in the stopping of cash assistance to families that lost everything. They also criticised Israel which, as the occupying power, bears the main duty. It must comply with its obligations under international law and in particular it must lift the blockade.

The aid deficit has hit UNRWA, the UN agency operating in Gaza for relief and reconstruction. In January, it suspended its cash assistance programme supporting repairs and providing rental subsidies because it ran out of funds.

When the US$5.4bil aid was pledged, UNRWA came up with a US$720mil (RM2.6bil) plan but received its own pledges of only US$135mil (RM487mil).

Its Gaza director Robert Turner said: “The population of Gaza is exhausted, frustrated and angry. The small remnants of hope have been extinguished, without any hope for political change and lifting of the blockade.

“The international community is failing to provide the people of Gaza with the bare minimum. Thousands of families are waiting, but we have no money.”

UNRWA’s Gunness, who last July famously showed outrage on TV when a UN-run school was destroyed by artillery fire, killing 19 refugees there, gave graphic scenes he witnessed on a recent Gaza visit.

In a small shack with a plastic roof that leaked, he saw the room where a 40-day-old baby, Salma, had died on Jan 21 after freezing rain fell through the roof on her the whole night and her trembling body turned blue. The body had been frozen like ice-cream, said her mother.

A cousin of Salma, a 50-day-old boy, also died of hypothermia in a UN shelter which was freezing cold.

Although the immediate task is to rebuild the houses and infrastructure, Gaza also faces massive socio-economic problems such as 47% unemployment and blackouts of 18 hours a day, while 90% of all water is undrinkable.

“What is the point of reconstructing Gaza if it cannot have a functioning economy?” said Gunness in an interview. Gaza needs to import raw materials to make things and trade, otherwise it will be condemned for decades more to the life-support system of aid.

From all these reports, we have to conclude that the Gaza population is living in hell-like conditions, half a year after the military war stopped.

The houses are still not rebuilt, the promised funds have largely not arrived, basic needs are not satisfied, assistance to the most needy has mainly stopped, and frustration and anger are growing. Even if the widespread military attacks on the population have stopped, “war” in other forms is still being waged, with dire economic and social effects.

Leaders in countries that had pledged support months ago should act now to get the funds moving and to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and to live up to its obligations as an occupying power.

As the aid agencies and the UN have warned, allowing the present situation to continue and to deteriorate further will worsen the humanitarian crisis of Gaza and make more conflict situations likely.

> Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre, a research centre of 51 developing countries, based in Geneva. You can e-mail him at director@southcentre.org. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Martin Khor, columnist

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