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Gaza: Stay human? Just Staying Alive Is Hard Enough

Gaza: Stay human? Just Staying Alive Is Hard Enough

Report – By Julie Webb-Pullman

Only a week ago, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak insisted that there is not a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“The facts and figures are clear and visible,” he said.(1)

That is very true – the facts and figures ARE clear and visible – but they indicate the complete opposite.

Let’s begin by defining what constitutes a humanitarian crisis. Most international organisations and governments would accept the term to signify “a serious disruption of the functioning of society, whether developing suddenly or as the result of long-term processes, which poses a significant, widespread threat to human life, health, property or the environment,” a composite definition drawn from various humanitarian manuals and documents. (2)

This definition is particularly useful because it focuses on the ‘facts’, the reality of the actual situation, regardless of whether the disruption is caused by a natural disaster, an epidemic, an armed conflict, a drought, a siege – or any combination thereof.

Even the most cynical apologist for Israel cannot deny that there is a serious disruption of the functioning of Gaza society – unemployment is at 45.2% according to an UNRWA study released mid-June (3), while the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in March that 70% of industrial establishments have closed down since the blockade was enforced, 80% of the population is dependent on aid, and overcrowding in schools sees 81% of them operating on double shifts because only three of the 100 needed have been able to be reconstructed, due to the blockade on building materials.(4)

UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory Max Gaylard says in the same report:* “Higher education in all its forms is absolutely critical to a functioning society.”

Yet none of the 22 university and college buildings destroyed or damaged during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 have been rebuilt, while university students suffer not only a critical lack of resources such as textbooks, laboratories and IT facilities, but they are increasingly unable to pay tuition fees, resulting in drop-outs and postponement of studies.

“The lack of materials for reconstruction and rehabilitation, along with shortages of supplies, has forced thousands of students to learn in overcrowded and unsafe environments …This is a stark example of an education system subject to indiscriminate use of force and inadequate protection,”says UNESCO in its 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report. (5)

The housing situation has been discussed in previous articles – suffice it to say that Israel has agreed to allow in enough construction materials to meet only 1% of the housing needs of the tens of thousands of people made homeless by Israeli attacks since 2001 alone.

Clearly, then, Gaza society has been seriously disrupted – even the Middle East Quartet, comprised by the UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States, issued a statement in recent days saying the conditions faced by Gaza's civilian population were "unsustainable."(6)

Life, death and health

Many have gone much further, pointing out they are a threat to the life and health of the population. A team of Norwegian doctors earlier this year conducted an independent assessment of the chronic shortage of drugs and medical supplies. They identified deaths of cancer patients at Al-Shifa Hospital attributable to their receiving only one or two of four scheduled chemotherapy treatments.

“Oncologists said 100 of 260 cancer patients at Gaza’s largest hospital were unable to receive effective treatment because the required combination of several drugs was not obtainable,” they noted, reporting that of the list of essential items compiled for Gaza in 2000, of 480 drugs and 700 disposable medical items, more than a third were missing completely, barely 7% of the remainder exceed 2 months supply, 25 items had less than one month’s supply, and 23 less than two months. The recommended stock is three months supply of essential items on hand, with regular provisions delivered every two months. (7)

Chronic conditions are also hit hard by the blockade – asthmatic children cannot obtain inhalers, so instead receive daily injections, and other conditions are treated with whatever is available, even when this carries risks, as the clip of Ahmed demonstrates.

With regard to equipment, Horya is too scared to even have surgery because she fears the equipment will kill her.

Four doctors from Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights visited Gaza during the Norwegians’ visit, and were ‘appalled’ to find that the sole CT machine available in the Nasser Children’s Hospital had been out of service for months, new drugs were not in use, and no blood tests were done in January because of equipment shortages.

What do you say to those “clear and visible facts and figures”, Mr Barak? To the opinions of Israeli doctors, no less?

The Medical Director of Al Shifa Hospital, Dr Medhat Abbas, provided even more disturbing facts and figures when I interviewed him.

Dr Medhat Abbas, medical director, Al Shifa Hospital, Gaza.

“In addition to the lack of medications and medical supplies, are the electricity shortage, fuel shortages for the generators, the lack of spare parts for the generators. The same applies to 2000 items of medical equipment for which we need spare parts, and trained personnel to come and train our engineers and exchange experience with them, and also the training of our medical personnel, those who are deprived of travel abroad for conferences and to exchange knowledge with people from the outside. Plus the absence of construction materials causing a negative effect on the development and renovation of medical facilities on the Gaza Strip. When we put these all together with the closure, the poverty and the unemployment, all of them together are negatively affecting the health situation,” he told me.

Health effects of environmental contamination from banned weapons

“You can also add the internationally banned weapons that were used against us during the war, before and after the war, and the negative effects on the health of the people. We were able to prove through some Italian laboratories that they have used internationally-banned weapons and we discovered uranium in the hair of the children who were exposed in the areas that were targeted by the Israeli F-16 and Apaches and whatever, out of 90 cases we saw uranium in 60 of them, it was proved. And we do have the data analysis, it’s done in Italy, not by us, even the samples were taken by Italians so it is a very unbiased study. Also, the effect has reached the underground water and the soil as well as the human beings, and the effects of these weapons, we are talking about cancer and infertility, sterility of both males and females, and also the teratogenic effects, that is to say, the effects on embryos in the uterus of their mothers,” Dr Abbas added.

I checked the sources, and sure enough reputable Italian scientists have published their studies in peer reviewed journals and websites. (8)(9)(10)

As warned by the scientists, the health – and lives – of Gazans are at risk. “We have noticed an increase in the number of [spontaneous] abortions and congenital anomalies, and the statistical department is now working on that and putting together a comparison between before and after these invasions. We have noticed an increased consumption of cancer medications in the last two years in particular, it’s a matter of fact,” Dr Abbas said.

I asked him if there any international research efforts or collaborations looking into the long-term effects of the Israeli weaponry on the incidence of cancer and birth defects.

He replied, “Yes, we are working on that, we are at least monitoring what is going on in the environment, we are trying to measure what is going on in the soil, in the underground water, in the hair, in the nails, we take nail samples to compare before and after. I recall that one of the German scientists that visited Gaza during 2000, 2001 maybe, he had the control levels of all the minerals available in the soil, and after the bombs of the Cast Lead operation we took samples from the same areas and we compared them with the control, and we’ve seen that some of these materials exist 3,500 fold of the control level – imagine what you are talking about, you are talking about a disaster. And it’s not only uranium, its so-called vanadium, aluminium, some 33 metals were discovered in excess, in the areas that were targeted.”

I asked Dr Abbas what avenues of redress there might be for what is in effect, a mass poisoning of the Gaza population.

His response: “It’s a dirty dirty game, politics. We should reasonably expect many Israeli killers would appear before the international courts, but we are only seeing Arabs taken there. This is unfair, this is unacceptable, we don’t trust the international community in this regard, in particular when we see our children, our victims are suffering and nobody is admitting how and why. There is a sort of protection that we cannot penetrate when it comes to [internationmal] decision-makers. That is why the flotillas and convoys are important. They will not bring us enough equipment to end our problem, but yes, they will draw international attention.”

The facts and figures certainly are clear and visible. They all point to “a serious disruption of the functioning of society which poses a significant, widespread threat to human life, health, property and the environment.”

These issues go further than just demonstrating that a humanitarian crisis exists in Gaza – they demonstrate that Israel is responsible for this crisis - not only its causes, but also its persistence over time, in the form of the blockade. What more can Gaza do?

Dr Abbas is firm. “We will keep knocking on doors, we will keep searching for somebody to help our people. When I knock on these doors, I knock as a man who has the right to help his people. I am quite sure that we will win our case and we will never ever surrender, and this is my message to you.”

I suggest that as the occupying power, Israel has an obligation to provide the necessary items.

“As the occupier, we expect them to quit. We don’t need their help, just for them to leave us alone so we are free, and we can manage ourselves. We don’t need their supervision, nothing. We are looking forward to having our freedom, the freedom of our children. Imagine that my children do not know the meaning of a river, or a train, or a plane other than the F-16 or Apache or helicopter that is shelling them. We are not only speaking about poverty, you know, we are speaking about freedom, the taste of freedom. When these flotillas, these convoys come to us they are drawing the attention of the international community that there is a prison here in which 1.5 million people are trapped in 360 sq km, they are trapped inside, they can’t get out, they are deprived of their freedom, and the Israelis are still there, in the air, on the land, in the sea, they are keeping it closed – why? We need our rights.”

And to those who say the problem is over now that the Rafah crossing is ‘open’ – it is open to passengers only, not goods. And it is open to only 300 people a day, five days a week – if they are lucky. If the Egyptians don’t send back a couple of busloads as they did last week, or just close it for ‘repairs’ as they did for several days the previous week. And if you do the sums, you will see that even in the best-case scenario, 78,000 people a year can pass. With a population of 1.5 million, it means each person gets one turn to leave every 19 years...a long time to wait for that follow-up chemo- or radiotherapy.....

Yes, the facts and figures are clear and visible. Gaza is suffering a humanitarian crisis. The cause of the continued crisis is clear – the Israeli blockade. The solution is equally clear – the immediate and total lifting of the blockade.

Israel claims a right to security – but so does Gaza have that right. How many Israelis have been killed or injured by Gazans in the last 45 years? How many Gazans have been killed or injured by Israelis? How many Gazan planes fly over Israeli territory every day and night? How many Israeli planes fly over Gazan territory? How often do Gazan boats harass and fire upon Israeli ships in Israeli waters? How often do Israeli vessels harass and open fire on Gazan boats in Gazan waters?

Mr Barak doesn’t seem to want to consider THESE clear and visible facts and figures – and nor do the fawning Israel-appeasers of the international community.

It is a telling indictment of international organisations and governments – especially Greece’s - that it is civil society, in the form of flotillas and convoys, that is manifesting the conscience of the world, and challenging Israel’s indefensible collective punishment of the population of Gaza.

Is the flotilla necessary? The answer can only be a resounding YES.


(1) Barak Slams Flotilla Organizers: No Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

(2) For example, Principles and good practice of humanitarian donorship

(3) UN: Unemployment Rate In Gaza Among World's Highest The report itself can be found here

(4) OPT: Blockade frustrates Gaza students

(5) EFA Global Monitoring Report p143

(6) Concern Over Situation In Gaza*

(7) Norway investigates Gaza’s drug crisis (pdf)

(8) Metals detected by ICP/MS in wound tissue of war injuries without fragments in Gaza

(9) Analysis of pilot survey of Metal content in samples of hair collected in December 2009 in Gaza.

(10) Gaza Strip, soil has been contaminated due to bombings: population in danger

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