Condemned to desolation
On the brink of starvation, reports Erica Silverman, Gazans wonder if the world is blind as well as deaf
Hundreds of desperate parents swarmed lists of coupon numbers tacked to the walls of the UNRWA relief centre in the Beach Refugee Camp of Gaza City Sunday, nervously trying to locate their assigned lot to collect emergency food packages only being offered to families with at least 11 members.
"There is not enough food in Gaza; even we at UNRWA are struggling to get the food in," warned John Ging, director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, as he toured the relief centre. UN workers urgently tossed bags of flour from supply trucks and stacked bottles of oil in efforts to alleviate what Ging described as a "desperate and unprecedented" crisis.
UNRWA began its emergency food distribution 10 September, one week later than planned due to the closure of Karni, Gaza's only commercial crossing. "There must be a solution at the crossing points. We need international help to open up Gaza to a civilised existence," asserted Ging. UNRWA feeds 830,000 of Gaza's 1.4 million residents, and one-third of the food required for the emergency distribution is still outside of Gaza.
"It is not just about bringing in containers of humanitarian assistance. It is about restoring the Gazan economy," said Ging, calling for the implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last November and that stipulates that all border crossings to Gaza will remain open.
President Mahmoud Abbas announced from Gaza Monday that he had reached an agreement with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to form a unity government between Fatah and Hamas. The current Hamas-led government will be dissolved within 48 hours and a new prime minister will be appointed, said presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeinah Monday. However, it remained murky, till Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, as to how Hamas's political programme would change exactly.
Abbas was under great pressure to reach an agreement since he will go before the United Nations 22 September and the Quartet will meet 1 October.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Hamas to form the unity government during his visit with Abbas Sunday in Ramallah in a bid to resuscitate the peace process, although he reiterated the government would only be accepted if Hamas met the Quartet's conditions of recognising Israel and renouncing violence. Blair did not meet with Hamas officials.
Speaking after Friday prayer at a mosque in Rafah, Haniyeh said, "when we form the unity government we shall see if the siege is lifted, although the goal of the Western world is to see Hamas out of office."
Gaza's commercial and passenger border crossings were sealed 25 June after an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Hamas and have opened only sporadically since. The kidnapping prompted Israel to launch a 12- week-long incursion into Gaza, purportedly to rescue its captured soldier and to halt the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel. According to the Palestinian Authority (PA) Health Ministry, as of Monday, 272 Palestinians have died and 1,463 have been injured as a result of Israel's incursion.
Poverty and desperation have gripped Palestinians in Gaza as their economy has been buried by international sanctions against the Hamas-led government and Israel's decision to withhold, in violation of the Paris Protocol, $54 million in monthly tax revenue owed to the PA. The groundwork for Gaza's economic crisis was laid in the closure of the crossings, prohibiting imports and exports. However, since Israeli destroyed Gaza's only power station 28 June leaving residents, businesses, and hospitals without electricity and water, the situation has become unbearable.
Gaza residents are still living in darkness. According to Rafiq Maliha, project manager of Gaza Power Generating Company, an agreement has been signed between the PA and an Egyptian construction company to import transformers, although Gaza's residents still await Israeli permission for the equipment to enter. It will take weeks to begin the repairs and only 35 per cent of the plant's total capacity can be restored anyway.
Gaza's economy continues to die slowly from the effects of the 28 June power plant strike. Amir Company for Ice Cream has closed its doors, no longer making a profit, although owner Emad Al-Wadia still pays over 1,000 shekels per day to operate generators to refrigerate his stores of ice cream. "Seventy-five per cent of my products are exported to the West Bank, and until this week the last time exports left Gaza was in January," said Al-Wadia, unable to sell his products locally due to the lack of refrigeration in Gaza.
Only 40 out of 150 major companies in Gaza are operating due to border closures and the lack of electricity. Generators have doubled operating costs, reports Mohamed Mushtaha, head of the Palestinian Businessman's Association in Gaza. Like many companies in Gaza, if Al-Wadia does not export by 2007, he will close his business forever.
Recently, the Gaza business sector issued a plea to all Palestinian factions asking them not to "conduct operations" against border crossings. The private sector is "calling on the [Palestinian] factions not to target the crossings and the surrounding areas, and to remove them from the circle of conflict with the Israeli side," stated an announcement. "The closure of the crossings and the unavailability of raw materials led to a complete paralysis of the industrial, agricultural and construction sectors, resulting in the closure of factories," the statement continued. Gaza's crossings are "the lifeline of the Palestinian people and the backbone of the national economy".
The plea asked factions not give Israel "an excuse" to continue its closure policy, underscoring that building a Palestinian state depends on the movement of goods in and out of Gaza. Closure of the crossings has increased unemployment, already hovering at 80 per cent in Gaza, and has stifled international projects and investment.
Meanwhile, Palestinian civil servants declared an open- ended strike 2 September, demanding unpaid salaries from the past six months, although by Sunday the strike had lost momentum in Gaza, where Hamas support is strongest.
Almost all Gaza schools are operating and only about 10 per cent of other PA employees continued striking. About 300 employees from various ministries and the Gaza Workers' Union protested outside the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City Sunday chanting, "The strike will continue until the government meets its responsibilities."
Meanwhile, hundreds of students protested outside the Islamic University demanding lower tuition fees. The general strike continued in the West Bank where union leadership is stronger and most schools remained closed. Abbas encouraged PA employees to return to work after announcing the agreement to form a national unity government.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Abu Zayad called on the international community to provide Gaza with a peacekeeping force or mission of observers, arguing that the Gaza population deserves protection, during her visit to New York Thursday.
"It would be great to have an international presence, civilian, military, whatever," said Abu Zayad.