IFRC


Palestine Red Crescent: working and living under siege in Gaza

Published: 1 February 2008 0:00 CET



Since the sealing off of the Gaza strip by Israeli authorities in June 2007, the humanitarian situation of Palestinians has deteriorated significantly, leaving tens of thousands of families living in extreme poverty. The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) has mobilized its volunteers and emergency teams to provide essential relief to some of the most vulnerable people through its medical services, health centers, programme for disabled children and psychosocial services. PRCS volunteers are going door-to-door, doing needs assessments and distributing emergency items, including blankets, candles, hygiene articles, mattresses, water and lamps, to alleviate some of the suffering.

Despite support from the International Federation, the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as from other Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Palestine Red Crescent is greatly limited in what it can do to help the people in Gaza, due to the strict regulations imposed at the border on the movement of people in and out of the territory, and the importation and exportation of goods, controlled and restricted to the most basic needs.

During most of 2007, goods or equipment destined for development projects managed by national and international organizations or agencies have not been allowed into the Gaza Strip and material or spare parts to keep industry running cannot enter. The population in this tiny and very densely populated land of just 365 km⊃2;, is suffering from isolation, poverty, and lack of everything.

According to the World Food Program, some 80,000 inhabitants of Gaza have lost their jobs since June 2007, bringing the already high rate of unemployment to 44% of the active population. Many local industries have shut down and Israel’s decision, a few days ago, to completely seal off the Gaza Strip, preventing even fuel and the most essential commodities to enter the territory, worsened the situation. People had no more electricity from the power plant as fuel tanks were empty, and hospitals were running on generators, putting the survival of many patients at risk, such as premature babies surviving in incubators.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian tension continues as militant groups shoot rockets over the border into nearby Israeli villages, causing injuries and stress to people living there.

Every day, the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza face rapidly growing poverty and faint hopes for the future. They feel they are taken back to the nineteen century, with candles as the main source of light after sunset. In the cold, dark and rainy winter nights, and with no heating for most people, the candles can only provide dim lighting. Candles cannot replace the heating needed for people to stay healthy and avoid respiratory and other diseases. Witnessing the humanitarian impact of the blockade and years of siege, the Palestine Red Crescent as well as United Nations agencies and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are warning about a worsening humanitarian disaster.

A few days ago, like a balloon bursting, half of the Gaza Strip population jumped over cut barbed wire and fallen concrete blocks, spilling over the border into Egypt after sections of the wall were destroyed by explosions. Some seven hundred thousand people rushed to Egyptian markets to buy essential goods. Suddenly they got the feeling once again of freedom of movement and normal life.

Commenting on the situation faced by his National Society, Younis Al-Khatib, president of the Palestine Red Crescent, said: "The closure and its devastating impact on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and mainly in the Gaza Strip is putting more responsibilities on the PRCS shoulders and other national and international humanitarian agencies. Our staff and volunteers are working tirelessly to ease the misery of the Palestinians whose basic and critical health, social and humanitarian needs are increasing due to the Israeli occupation measures against Gaza. The measures of the policy of collective punishment have surpassed all limits and comprehension.  Our priority now is to ensure full access to humanitarian assistance and to protect the lives of the families who are trying to cope with the hardships of such a situation. As for the international community, they should force the occupying power to adhere to International Humanitarian Law and ensure free access for humanitarian agencies to Gaza."

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In the Palestine Red Crescent Al Quds Hospital in Gaza City, Yasser, a ten-year-old boy, is kept alive by an oxygen ventilator. Since he was shot in the chest during intra-Palestinian violence close to one year ago, Yasser has been hospitalized, first in an Israeli hospital, and then, for the last four months, in the PRCS hospital. But the doctors have not been able to bring Yasser back to a normal life, where he can enjoy playing with his friends and being with his relatives. His future is shaped by a complete dependency on this machine, powered by electricity from the power plant. Yasser whispers to his visitors, through tubes and the sound of artificial breathing, that he dreams of having a machine of his own to be able to go home to his family instead of staying in the hospital for the rest of his life. What he does not know is that the risk of this machine stopping is high, if the fuel needed for the power plant and the generator to operate is not delivered. 

Mohamad Al Zrei’I, Abdelaziz Abou Sha’ib and Abdallah Mahmoud Washah have much in common when it comes to the reality of their daily life.  They live in refugee camps in Central Gaza, they are all unemployed and they are trying to address the needs of their large families, including their medical needs.

Mohamad, 65, has seven children, a bedridden brother who suffers from severe psychological problems, an elderly mother and a wife who has asthma and high blood pressure. Life has been unkind to him and his face reflects the traces of despair and deprivation. Mohamad, who is also battling diabetes, shares his tiny house with his family of 14. They survive thanks to relief assistance from UNRWA, help from the PRCS and gifts from neighbours. Candles became a daily part of this family’s life a very long time ago, providing them with a bit of light, a bit of hope, and just a little bit of heat during the cold winter nights.

The complete closure of the Gaza Strip has increased his and his family’s daily suffering.  “Of course it affected my life and the health of my family,” he says, “mainly because of the quasi-continuous power cuts and my poverty, which prevents me from buying enough candles. I can accept living in humiliation and deprivation, but what hurts me most is my inability to provide medical care for my mother and brother and enough to feed my children.”

A road full of potholes and littered with chunks of wood leads to the home of 70-year-old Abdelaziz, who shares his small house with 13 members of his family, four of whom are his handicapped children. The house has only two small rooms and family members have to sleep on the floor, wrapped in blankets, the only thing they have to keep away the winter cold. In one room, two little boys were sleeping, huddled against each other to keep warm and using each other’s feet as a pillow, without any covers. A candle dimly lit the kitchen, with its worn pots and pans and dry pieces of bread on the table.

Abdelaziz, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, uses what little money he has to pay for the university education of two of his children. After receiving essential blankets and for his whole family, candles and other relief goods from the Palestine Red Crescent team, he explains how the embargo on the Gaza Strip affects his life. “I am unemployed and I need to provide for my four disabled children. I cannot even pay for the candles to light their nights, let alone cover their medical expenses or provide them with food and bread. Our family relies on charity from our neighbours as well as on food aid provided by UNRWA. I have a shabby house with worn out furniture, but the most humiliating time of the day is when we go to sleep. The house is so small that we either sleep huddled against each other or we take turns. My wife even found insects and small rats in our closets and clothes.” Thanking the PRCS disaster management team, he adds: “God bless you. You have managed to bring us moral support and humanitarian solidarity and to safeguard what little is left of our dignity.

Abdallah Washah, 57, supports his wife and his eleven children (eight children go to school and three are under six). He used to work in Israel to put bread on the table, but has been unemployed for ten years. He suffers from high blood pressure, asthma and chronic psoriasis, but cannot afford to buy the necessary medication. He and his family depend on relief aid provided by UNRWA. As if current living conditions were not difficult enough, a fire destroyed his house recently, and family members had to be separated to go and live with friends and other relatives. Abdallah describes what happened: “On the 8th of January at around 11 p.m, I was awakened by my children’s screams and my neighbours pounding on the door. I saw thick black smoke filling the house. We all woke up and ran out. The fire was caused by one small candle. We stood in the rain and watched our house burn down in just a few minutes, amidst my children’s screams and tears.”

The candle was the only source of light the family had since electricity was cut off more than a week before. Abdallah lacks the financial means to reunite his family even in a small tin house, but he continues his daily fight with life, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, in order to cater for his own needs and to provide for his family.

The Palestine Red Crescent has provided relief items including blankets, water supplies, candles, gasoline lamps, window sealing material, kitchen utensils and hygiene articles to families in Deir Al Balah and Al Breij refugee camps, in response to the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable families in Gaza.




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