The real heroes of Gaza

Published: 20 December 2006 0:00 CET

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is dramatic. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society is one of the most active aid organizations in the region, and its supporters and volunteers show exemplary courage and determination. The Swiss Red Cross supplies drugs and medicines to hospitals and provides assistance to young mothers. Field visit and testimony.

A centre synonymous with hope

El Amal – hope – is written on the building’s facade in large Arabic and Roman characters. The inscription accurately characterizes the sentiment conveyed by the centre for young disabled people located in Khan Younis in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinian Red Crescent Society has been running for the past ten years.

At the centre, 85 specialized teachers cater to the needs of 600 mentally and physically disabled children and young people day to day. In addition to therapy, they also receive schooling adapted to their needs from preschool level to vocational training.

The classes are small, and seriously disabled children receive one-on-one attention. “We are the only school of this kind in the entire Gaza Strip and have 3000 people on our waiting list,” explains the school principal.

Lessons for the deaf and hard of hearing are given by teachers who have this disability themselves, such as twenty-five-year-old Rahed Safi, who is deaf and speech impaired. He learned sign language at quite an early age and has trained as a teacher. Through group discussions and practical exercises, parents learn how best to reinforce learning at home. Adults are also welcome to attend woodwork, dressmaking and rug making classes.

Continuous state of exception

Running a school like this under normal conditions is in itself a challenge; running one in Gaza is almost a miracle. “El Amal” – hope – is a word that is foreign to the 1.4 million inhabitants of this narrow strip of land trapped between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and the Egyptian Sinai. They feel as though they are living in a great prison since the borders were closed a few months ago. The fishermen are hardly able to fish because the Navy shoots at any boat that ventures more than a kilometre from the coast, and the schools of sardines are well beyond that limit.

This situation exacerbates still further the extreme poverty in which the people of Gaza live. Since the bombing of a large power station at the end of June, the electricity supply is unreliable. Fuel imports are limited and even drinking water is only available at certain times.

Violence is omnipresent. Israeli aircraft carry out night-time raids to destroy houses that they suspect contain stashes of weapons, which sometimes cost women and children their lives. There are clashes between rival Palestinian security forces on an almost daily basis, and armed attacks are also frequent.

“There are more weapons here than food, and young people without work are attracted by fire arms,” reveals a young volunteer, who has chosen to make his live meaningful by joining the Red Crescent. There is nothing more demoralizing than a life without prospects, a life marred by a conflict that has been raging for decades with no glimmer of a solution on the horizon. In this context, the assistance provided by the Red Cross and Red Crescent represents a sheet anchor to many people.

Helping traumatized children

Asmi Alastal, head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society psychosocial programme, remarks on the increase in violence within the family. The growing poverty of a population affected by high unemployment, deplorable living conditions and overcrowding and traumatic war experiences sets nerves on edge and drives many men to despair. Red Crescent specialists visit schools in the most seriously affected areas and help children who show symptoms of anxiety or signs of being victims of violence.

They interview the children individually and visit the affected families. “Our four psychologists provide support each year to 1500 children, who are mostly from villages in the border area near Rafah, where, in addition to family violence, they experience rocket attacks, the death of loved ones and neighbours and the destruction of homes on an almost daily basis,” explains Asmi Alastal. The children of Rafah have never known anything but war and violence. Just being able to talk freely to an understanding specialist is a great relief to people who are at risk of cracking under the pressure of living in such a place.

Under the sign of the Red Crescent

The Salib Al Hilal – the Red Crescent – is one of the best known symbols in Palestine. In the Gaza Strip, over 1000 volunteers, mainly young people, display it proudly on their T-shirts. In addition to the psychosocial service and the centre for disabled people, the institution also runs two large hospitals in the towns of Gaza and Khan Younis and three clinics. The ambulances operate day and night. Here, everybody knows the emergency number 101.

Nahla Abou Ajwa is a doctor at the hospital in Gaza, which has 110 beds. She has not been paid for the past six months, because the Palestinian authorities no longer have the means to do so, as a result of the international boycott. However, she continues to work without pay, as this seems preferable to staying at home and doing nothing. She often diagnoses cases of anaemia caused by malnutrition in mothers and children.

The Gaza hospital specializes in paediatrics and maternity, and when young women leave the hospital after giving birth, they receive a package from the Swiss Red Cross containing basic hygiene and food supplies. A start to an uncertain future, which does, however, hold a glimmer of hope for a better future for the region.

Rahed, Asmi, Nahla and all the others, the thousands of Palestinian Red Crescent Society volunteers – they are the real heroes of Gaza.