Gaza beyond desperate
While a donor conference in Sweden pledges millions in aid to Palestinians, few in Gaza can believe they will ever see relief arrive, reports Erica Silverman from Gaza
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Palestinian students gather in front of their school in Gaza waiting for classes to begin. Palestinian teachers' and public workers' unions called for an open-ended strike to protest against the non-payment of salaries, threatening the start of the new academic year
A young principal from Gaza City, Amal Al-Aya, is struggling to keep Hassan Salama Girl's Elementary School operating for her 800 students eager to begin the new school year. All of her teachers reported to work Saturday, but only half taught their classes, observing an open-ended strike by Palestinian civil servants demanding unpaid salaries from the past six months.
Hassan Salama School is without electricity and water after Israel obliterated the main power station in the Gaza Strip 28 June. Al-Aya found her school ransacked this summer by desperate residents seeking water. "They stole water piping, water filters and telephone lines," says Al-Aya, who has yet to receive any assistance from the Hamas-led government. "When we elected Hamas we thought things would change for the better. People used to say that Fatah was stealing money, but at least they had money."
The strike has affected 40,000 teachers and about 45,000 other civil servants, including healthcare workers. By Monday most schools and Palestinian Authority (PA) offices were closed in the West Bank and Gaza, but overall the strike had gained more momentum in the West Bank where union leadership is stronger. At Moyan Beseso Elementary School in Shujayah, Mohamed Al-Hateny, the school principal, informed teachers they were free to strike although many Gaza teachers said they were threatened with termination or physical violence if they participated.
Hamas engaged in an active campaign to thwart the strike. In mosques across the Strip Friday, Hamas lawmakers sent home a message that striking against the government would only serve Israel. "Workers and teachers have the right to strike tomorrow, but you should be striking against the Americans and the Israelis," cried acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Ahmed Baher, speaking to crowds after Friday prayer in Gaza City. "We need to act as one, and if President Abbas works with the Hamas government we will find a solution," he said.
Some Palestinians in Gaza have lost patience. "This is a conscious strike. Twenty people in my office hold a doctorate," said 42-year-old Sami Drabih, director of sustainable development in Gaza for the PA Environmental Quality Department, standing amongst over 100 employees also from the health and agriculture ministries striking in Gaza City. "North Gaza is on the verge of collapse. The sewage treatment plants are not operating and we have constructed open pools for the sewage and now the drinking water is contaminated," warned Drabih.
"We have run out of money, we have run out of savings, and now food is our first priority," yelled Osama Mohamed, an engineer from the Agricultural Ministry.
Gaza City's mayor, Maged Abu Ramadan, is trying to pry the overdue municipal taxes and fees owed to his city from the PA Finance Ministry in a last minute effort to pay partial salaries to appease city workers and avoid a grave humanitarian disaster. "I will try to convince the employees not to stop the water and sewage services out of moral obligation," says Abu Ramadan. After a one-week long strike that left Gaza City covered with mounds of rotting garbage in sweltering summer temperatures, garbage collectors returned to work Saturday.
According to the PA Health Ministry, as of Sunday 257 Palestinians have died and 1,280 injured as a result of the now 11-week long Israeli incursion into Gaza, purportedly to halt the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel and to secure the recovery of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas 25 June.
On Thursday morning, Israeli forces withdrew from the Shujayah area of Gaza City ending a four-day long incursion that left 20 Palestinians dead and over 30 injured. Israeli forces reported they had uncovered a 150-metre long tunnel that a Palestinian faction had intended use in an operation against Karni Crossing -- Gaza's only commercial crossing that is almost always sealed leading to critical deficiencies in basic needs supplies.
According to Israel, it is not reoccupying Gaza. Instead it enters an area for two to three days to confront militants and to search for tunnels or launching sites, thereafter withdrawing. Israeli forces are still present in Gaza and invaded Beit Hanun in north Gaza and Jabalya refugee camp next to Gaza City by Saturday. Hamas says the Israeli offensive was pre-planned before the kidnapping with the aim of bringing down the government.
All border crossings to Gaza remain closed, strangling the Palestinian economy. Karni, has been sealed shut for 17 days as of Sunday, creating a shortage of basic commodities and food supplies and making the crossing a point of frustration for the Gaza population. Rafah, Gaza's only passenger crossing, is also shut. Under the terms of the "Agreement on Movement and Access" brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last November, the crossings were supposed to be open continuously. Openings were sporadic even before the Hamas-led government was sworn into office.
Meanwhile Gaza remains in the dark. According to Rafiq Maliha, project manager of Gaza Power Generating Company, an agreement has been signed between the PA and an Egyptian construction company, El Maco, to import a combination of new and used transformers -- financed by Sweden -- from Egypt this week, although import of the material is still contingent upon Israeli permission. It will take four to six weeks to begin production and the repairs can only restore 35 per cent of the plant's total capacity.
World donors promised to send $500 million in aid for Palestinians at an aid conference in Sweden last Friday to alleviate the critical humanitarian situation in Gaza that worsened as the world's attention turned to Lebanon. About $114 million of the pledges are reserved for humanitarian aid, but only $55 million were pledged towards a UN emergency appeal that had been the focus of the conference, raising concerns that the money is unlikely to provide immediate relief. Saudi Arabia offered $250 million, the largest donation.
The root of the humanitarian crisis stems from Israel's decision to withhold $54 million in monthly tax revenue owed to the PA as punishment for Hamas's electoral victory and in violation of the Paris Protocol signed in 1994 in conjunction with the Oslo Accords.
Jan Egeland, UN humanitarian chief, warned at the conference that the deteriorating situation in Gaza had turned it "into a ticking time bomb". Can the bomb be defused? Fatah and Hamas are hoping the formation of a national unity government will lift the international embargo, allowing the PA to receive funds and pay salaries. However, if Hamas lawmakers still hold cabinet positions and reject the Quartet's conditions -- principally recognising the state of Israel and renouncing armed resistance -- it is likely the embargo will continue.
"Even if the Hamas-led government accepts the Quartet's three conditions, Israel will not observe the agreement and nothing will change... The problem is that Israel thinks they must occupy and control this country," said senior Gaza Fatah leader Ahmed Helles. Israeli forces have killed 10 of the Helles family members, including two nephews this week in Shujayah.