3 July 2009
Two years of blockade and three weeks of military action have pushed ordinary Gazans into a state of continuing humanitarian crisis. Michael Bailey makes an empassioned plea for the end of the blockade.
Two years ago, Oxfam Great Britain had three staff in Gaza. We were helping to improve the water and sanitation services. We supported poor families to start vegetable gardens and rabbit breeding. Then the Israeli blockade slammed the gates of Gaza shut on development and prosperity for its one and a half million people. Since then Oxfam has argued against the blockade, which punishes the ordinary people of Gaza for rocket fire and the imprisonment of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit over which they have no control. International humanitarian law defines this as collective punishment which is illegal.
On top of this, six months ago people in Gaza endured a three-week Israeli military operation and intense conflict with Palestinian armed groups. More than 4000 homes were destroyed. Schools and factories, hospitals and flour mills were bombed and shelled. Water wells and electricity lines were blown up. Fields and olive groves were torn apart. Over 1400 hundred Palestinians died, some were armed fighters, most were not.
Two days ago I revisited Gaza yet again. Hamas is still in control and people say more organised than before. The Oxfam office now has 20 staff and an annual budget of more than £8 million pounds mostly for humanitarian aid. That's a seven-fold increase in misery if our response is proportional to the need. I took a trip out of Gaza City to see what this looks like.
I had visited Sameh El Sawafiri's family chicken farm before. The first time I was impressed by the noise. Forty thousand chickens eating and laying eggs. Oxfam was buying 15,000 eggs each week for the poorest 500 families in Gaza City. The eggs were part of our poor-to-poor fresh food aid programme. The second time I visited, this February I was impressed by the smell. 40,000 dead chickens rotting where the Israeli army had used bulldozers or tanks to crush them in their cages. This time I was impressed by Sameh's determination to rebuild his business.
"Five families depend on my business for everything," he told me, "I have no choice." He explained that he has paid £30 a bag for two tons of cement. Before the blockade, it cost 33 pence a bag. Labour to recycle mangled cages and metal building supports cost three times as much as new materials. These are not available because of the blockade. Sameh is deep in debt. The 10,000 chickens he has been raising from eggs have two more months to grow before they start laying. They eat £700 worth of food each week.
I asked if the blockade affects anything else. "Everything," he said, "When the Israeli troops were in my house they broke all the furniture and electrical equipment. They even cut holes in my mother's clothes and underwear. I can't replace any of it because of the blockade." I didn't see the damaged clothing but all the plastic chairs and the table we sat around to drink sweet tea were neatly mended with strips of wire or metal plates fixed with nuts and bolts. Holes punched by ammunition in cement block walls were uncovered and raw as they had been when I saw them in February.
Sameh explained the problems he faces now. "I can't mend the damage to the house until the blockade on building materials is lifted. Even if I get compensation money I will use it to pay off my debts. If the blockade stays and I get no compensation it will take me 10 years to save enough to rebuild the rest of my farm. The building work itself is a six month job." This is living on the front line of collective punishment.
Further south, east of the main Salah Ad Din Road lies Johir Ad Dik. What is left of this ravaged village sits close to the Israeli border. Driving round the tidied piles of building debris and the battered school I counted dozens of pale green nylon tents. Scattered amongst the grey smashed concrete they reminded me more of an Everest base camp than the tents of refugees.
Um Shetewe described how she has pulled together a two tent shelter for her family of eight. Water comes from the local municipality through a surface pipe that somehow escaped damage. Electricity was restored after only three months. She is not so fortunate with the toilet which is a hole under a small cloth cubicle. She says at least they have it to themselves. Children and parents all use a bowl at the back of the sleeping tent for bathing.
Um Shetewe listed Oxfam amongst several agencies that had provided parts of the support she relies on. Her husband lost his job when the municipality car he was paid to drive was crushed during the Israeli military occupation of their village. In February, the Palestinian Authority provided a single hardship payment of £2,500 that she has used for all their living expenses since then. It is almost all gone now.
One humanitarian agency gave her a coupon for £75 that helped to replace the kitchen equipment the family lost. Oxfam and Unicef provided a hygiene kit (plastic bowls, soap, shampoo toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, sanitary towels etc), parts of which she is still using. Her daily juggling act with money means that sometimes her daughter cannot get to her university course because Um Shetewe does not have £1 for the fare to get there and back. She is supposed to attend 5 days a week. Her brothers walk for an hour to get to school since the bicycles they used to use were flattened along with their house in January.
It was hot standing talking to Um Shetewe outside her tent. It would have been hotter inside. Now I have some idea what misery looks like, although I can't know exactly what it feels like any more than I know what it feels like to live under the threat of rockets from Gaza. There is no justification for illegal actions, no matter what the size. There is no justification for making civilians suffer in this way. It's time to open Gaza. Now.