For the past several years, Gaza has suffered from a humanitarian crisis that waxes and wanes in severity, but never entirely disappears. This tiny patch of land on the Mediterranean Sea has one of the highest population densities in the world with over 4,000 people per square kilometer. On top of that, it suffers from a crushing poverty rate and high unemployment numbers that mean that 85 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian aid.
The humanitarian situation is the result of an Israeli-imposed blockade that severely limits the flow of goods and people in and out. It's a part of what Palestinians see as a collective punishment for the actions of the Hamas-led government that took control there in June 2007. Hamas has also held an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in captivity since June 2006.
Gaza's crisis intensified at the end of last December when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day military offensive whose stated aim was to destroy Hamas's ability to launch rockets into southern Israel, and which resulted in the deaths of 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians. A recent, controversial United Nations report assessing the war has accused both Hamas and Israel of war crimes.
Since the end of the offensive in January 2009, Israel has allowed some goods into Gaza — such as cooking oil and basic foodstuffs — but not lifted the blockade, so the crisis' underlying causes have not been alleviated. Mercy Corps' work in Gaza focuses on providing immediate humanitarian aid, helping alleviate unemployment through cash-for-work programs, and helping traumatized Gazans deal with their psychological scars.
Isdud al Najjar, Program Director for Mercy Corps in Gaza, recently spoke with me about the situation there.
Sarah Standish: Tell us about Mercy Corps' work in Gaza. What is your role?
Isdud al Najjar: Mercy Corps has worked in Gaza since September 2005. I was the first person hired there and I've been a program manager there since February 2006. We started with small scale emergency programs there in addition to the 'Why Not?' program [connecting youth in the U.S. and Gaza], and our programs have grown a lot since that time. We now have a huge Cash-for-Work program, where we provide short-term job opportunities for vulnerable male and female households as well as for new graduates.
We also have psychosocial programs focused on helping children deal with the trauma and stress they experience, as well as humanitarian and emergency assistance programs that respond to the harsh circumstances in which Palestinians are living.
Finally, we have new youth program called Global Citizen Corps, through which we're trying to promote the full participation of boys and girls in different aspects of life in order to create a shared vision of the future.
Sarah: The Israeli siege is the main cause of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but it's also caused a lot of subsidiary issues like environmental degradation, unemployment, a lack of higher education opportunities, failing businesses, scarce food supplies, and more. What do you think is the worst side-effect of the siege?
Isdud: The biggest problem the siege has caused is the rampant unemployment — about half the population is unemployed — which has had a huge impact on all aspects of life — sometimes in ways that will leave a mark on people long into the future. (The New York Times examined this issue in a recent article.)
Not only has unemployment lead to higher poverty rates, it's also associated with increases in domestic violence, which can have a negative psychological impact on children and their performance in school and at work. It's also related to a rise in school drop-out rates because some parents force their children to leave the education system in order to sell small items in the street. Additionally, we're seeing women and children out on the streets begging, which is a desperate last resort because it's considered so shameful — especially since Gaza is small and dense, and many people know each other. Some also try to marry their daughters off earlier in order to relieve themselves of that financial burden. When resources are scarce, parents always give priority to their male children, so in this kind of crisis it's women and children who pay the highest price.
Sarah: Can you tell us about the under-ground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that are used to smuggle in goods prohibited under the Israeli blockade?
Isdud: There must be at least one thousand tunnels between Gaza and Rafah [in Egypt]. These tunnels have relieved the local market somewhat, and have definitely improved the economic situation of those who run them, but the prices of the goods smuggled through them are so high that they don't alleviate the average person's situation very much. The tunnels are a Hamas business. (Global Envision also wrote about the tunnels last winter.)
Sarah: Israel destroyed much of Gaza's infrastructure during the Dec-Jan offensive. Are rebuilding efforts under-way? Are homes being rebuilt?
Isdud: The offensive damaged or destroyed schools, water treatment facilities, public buildings, and houses, but very little has been restored because of the severe shortage of building materials. Israel doesn't allow any building materials into Gaza. There's a little bit of construction material coming through the tunnels, but it's so heavy that smugglers don't like to bring much through, and it's also too expensive for the majority of Palestinians to afford.
The lack of reconstruction means that many families are either living in buildings that are in poor condition, or staying with their relatives. As a result, there's even more overcrowding in existing buildings, and families have been split up — parents often have to send a few children to live with one set of relatives, a few others to live with another set.
Gazans follow the news closely, hoping to hear good news about their situation. In particular, they want to know what will happen with the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit. People think that everything bad that happened to Gaza recently was revenge for the kidnapping, and they hope that if an agreement is reached on his release, the siege will be lifted.
Sarah: How has the blockade affected daily life and Mercy Corps' programs in Gaza?
Isdud: The siege has caused severe poverty and deprivation: 80 percent of Gazans now live under the poverty line, and 70 percent live in a state of deep poverty, which means that they're unable to cover the cost of their basic needs like food, health care, and electricity. Mercy Corps provides some food assistance and non-food items like water tanks, as well as medical supplies for people with disabilities. It's difficult to determine who should receive this aid since the number of people in severe need of this assistance has increased dramatically. For example, we receive thousands of applications for our cash-for-work program, but we can only help 6000-8000 people. The challenge for us is how to successfully target the poorest of the poor.
For a period, there were also severe electricity shortages [after Israel began cutting Gaza's power supply in retaliation for Hamas's rocket attacks in October 2007] that affected Mercy Corps' ability to run its programs smoothly. Sometimes, we experienced up to ten hours of power outages at a time. We have a cash-for-work program employing women who sew school uniforms, but they couldn't use their sewing machines without power, so jobs that should have been finished in twenty days sometimes took up to a month and a half. We also employed women to bake pastries that were provided as snacks to pre-schoolers, but the same thing happened: They were unable to run their electric ovens when the electricity was cut off, just as our psychosocial programs were negatively affected when there wasn't enough light in the rooms we were using to see by. Even worse, the electricity outages also meant that buildings would run out of clean water. Luckily, Mercy Corps has a generator at our office, but it didn't always have enough power to compensate for the cuts.
There was also a period in Gaza in which there was hardly any fuel. Taxis were idle, and their drivers sat at home. People were cooking over wood fires for lack of gas. Luckily, fuel is now usually able to pass into Gaza normally, so the energy situation has improved a little.
However, the siege has also caused a severe materials scarcity that hasn't abated, so we've had to be creative and re-plan some Mercy Corps programs according to what's available to us. We had planned to help reconstruct the offices of some local NGOs and rebuild a public park, but this turned out to be impossible because of the lack of building materials. Instead, we had to focus on programs that rely more on the availability of labor than materials. For instance, we employ people to help fishermen maintain their nets, and we've started a cash-for-work program that pays unemployed laborers to work on farms; that way, the program provides some people with employment, as well as helping the farmer by providing him with free labor that keeps the farmer from pulling his children out of school to do this work.
Sarah: Tell us more about Mercy Corps' psycho-social programs.
Isdud: Our programs are designed to help children who've been negatively affected by the stress of daily life and the traumatic experiences they've undergone. The program targets moderately traumatized children along with their parents and teachers, and we deliver psycho-social guided sessions using different techniques based on professional manuals, like the CABAC [Children Affected by Armed Conflict] manual, designed to help children living in conflict zones. We try to take a comprehensive approach by giving different workshops to the teachers and parents of the kids, mainly on how to deal with depressed and traumatized children, and we tell them about the importance of providing down time for their children and encouraging them to play. The program also offers some remedial classes for children whose school performance has been affected by their psychological problems. This program has been a great help to many of the Gazan children who are suffering from this overwhelming situation.