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Gaza blockade: “We are captive and slowly suffocating”

Written by Steve Weaver, ACT/Church World Service
July 23, 2009

JERUSALEM -- When talking to people in Gaza about the difficult humanitarian, economic and infrastructure conditions under which they live, one quickly realizes that the 22-day assault that ended early this year was only the most recent, although especially brutal, chapter in a longer context of occupation and blockade.

An already difficult situation following 40 years of occupation became significantly worse in June 2007 when Israel imposed a severe blockade following the takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

"It is killing us slowly," says Constantine Dabbagh of the Middle East Council of Churches' Palestinian Refugee Service Department (DSPR) in Gaza. "People can't get out. People can't get in. We can't get what we need. Families are separated. We are captive and slowly suffocating."

The objective indicators are sobering. Even before the recent war nearly 80 percent of Gaza residents were living below the official poverty line, less that $2.30 per day, according to the World Bank.

The United Nations estimates that 98 percent of private businesses have closed and more than 100,000 people have lost their jobs since June 2007, with total unemployment at about 45 percent.  According to the UN Development Program women have been especially hard hit with only 11.5 percent participating in the job market, one of the lowest rates in the world.

ACT International members are working in Gaza to address both emergency needs resulting from the assault as well as the long term crisis. Medical services, vocational training, cash assistance, provision of food and nutritional supplements, support for home repairs, and psychosocial programs are some of the ways ACT members are supporting local communities in their effort to recover from the war and manage the long term consequences of occupation and blockade. But the crippling blockade is impacting those efforts.

A near total embargo on construction materials is having a grim affect on the newly homeless. About 1,800 people now live in Camp Dignity, in northern Gaza, after their homes were destroyed nearby. This is only one of many temporary solutions the newly displaced in Gaza have been forced into.

According to the UN over 4,200 homes were demolished during Operation Cast Lead, with an additional 14,000 damaged. "The blockade on reconstruction materials causes great difficulty to start up ACT appeal initiatives targeting repairs and reconstruction of homes, schools, community buildings, and clinics," says Dirk Lackovic-van Gorp of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).

Partners of ACT report a long list of challenges affecting their programs as a result of the blockade. Suhaila Tarazi, of Al Ahli Hospital, reports a range of items, from the mundane to the highly technical, the hospital has difficulty accessing. Detergent for washing machines, plastic cups, toilet paper, paper sheets for beds are all in short supply. "This is a hygiene and sanitation issue for a hospital," Tarazi said.

The hospital has been depending on one X-ray developing machine. It is eight years old and doesn't work properly. They have been trying to get a new one for the last 5 months but have been unsuccessful. The hospital received an endoscopy sterilizing machine from USAID in March. "But we can't get the special gas required for the sterilization process, so it is sitting unused," Tarazi said. "I extremely fear hearing about a piece of equipment failing, because it means it will go into storage for lack of spare parts."

It isn't only the embargo on supplies and parts that is affecting the Al Ahli Hospital. The inability of cancer patients to get travel permits to Jerusalem or Egypt is also having an impact on the hospital. "Now doctors have to make critical treatment decisions based on less information. It puts patients' lives in more danger and increases the hospital's exposure to lawsuits," said Tarazi.

DSPR is feeling the effect at their vocational training centers where young Gazans are learning valuable skills. At the metal working training center in Gaza City, DSPR has had to modify certain projects due to the scarcity of resources. Prices of all metals, including scrap, have increased considerably. At the electrical training center in Khan Yunis the director, Mahmoud Abulibda, notes the cost of supplies has tripled. "A spool of copper wire that used to cost 24 shekel now costs 85 shekels," he says. "We've had to drop some lessons, combine others and reuse materials."

The blockade is also affecting the provision of basic food items, said Lackovic-van Gorp of IOCC. "The blockade on randomly selected food items -- for no apparent reason or rationale -- causes considerable delays in the transport of food and non-food commodities into Gaza," he said. "Items blockaded over the past two months have included pasta, jam and tahini. Such bans cause additional work to repackage parcels and sometimes necessitate modifying contracts with suppliers."

DSPR's clinic in Al Shija'ia was bombed by an Israeli air strike in January and reduced to rubble. As a temporary solution the clinic is operating out of a temporary building. But this space, in need of renovation, is also being affected by the blockade. "A bag of cement that cost 20 shekels before the blockade now costs 200", says Dr. Salim Al Abadlah, DSPR Medical Coordinator. "And there are no windows." And so part of the temporary space sits unfinished and unused, waiting for the most basic construction materials.

The Greek Government, through its Consul General in Jerusalem, has generously agreed to build a new clinic when land is found for the new construction. But finding the materials for construction could prove challenging given the near total blockade on construction materials since June 2007.

When asked when they might be able to build the clinic Dr Abadlah, shrugs and says, "Maybe two months, maybe two years, maybe two decades. We don't know."

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# Steve Weaver is the Middle East regional coordinator for Church World Service. After being based in Palestine/Israel for three months, he offers this personal reflection on the effect Gaza blockade on the lives of Palestinians and the work of ACT International members on the ground.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide. 



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