Wednesday 26 August marks one year since the ceasefire that ended the Gaza war of 2014. However, one year later, little has been done to improve conditions in Gaza. We invited you to ask your questions on the situation in Gaza and passed these, and some of our own, on to two experts on the ground.
Last May, Jimmy Carter and Gro Harlem Brundtland consulted with two experts In Israel/Palestine – Katleen Maes, Head of the Gaza Sub–Office of OCHA and Tania Hary, Deputy Director of Gisha. Now they answer your questions.
Internally Displaced Persons living in makeshift shelters next to their destroyed homes, Beit Hanoun. Photo: OCHA
What more can the international community do to improve the pace of reconstruction in Gaza?
Tania: The international community should make good on its pledges to support the reconstruction of Gaza, and it should also hold Israeli and Palestinian leaders to their promises to facilitate reconstruction. One year after the war, reconstruction has been held up due to lack of funds, continued restrictions on entrance of construction materials and the onerous constraints of the mechanism that is meant to allow materials into Gaza.
But true recovery doesn’t just mean restoring the situation to pre-2014, it means shifting the approach on Gaza entirely. Israel and the international community must recommit themselves to the core principle of international law – the principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants – and work to remove restrictions on movement or refrain from other actions that target the civilian population.
Katleen: In our discussions with people who have lost their homes, sometimes for the third or fourth time, they obviously want their house to be reconstructed, but even more so, they want to be able to (re-)build their own future in safety and dignity. There are a number of short-term, concrete steps the international community can take, so that the 100,000 internally displaced people of Gaza could rebuild their homes as well as the community’s social fabric:
"These steps should go hand in hand with efforts aimed at forging longer-term solutions: to end the occupation, lift the blockade, resolve internal Palestinian divisions, and ensure that Gaza remains an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) by linking it up the West Bank."
- Disburse the pledges made in Cairo at the end of 2014 and monitor their good use to rebuild homes or to provide psychosocial support for traumatised families. Priority humanitarian projects, for example to improve maternal and infant health, as well as recovery and reconstruction projects, such as projects to provide electricity, need to be covered.
- Work towards economic recovery so that people become less dependent on humanitarian assistance. This includes creating more work opportunities by further increasing the import of construction materials into Gaza, increasing exports and transfers of goods out of Gaza to a level where it becomes profitable to farmers and small businesses, and allowing people from Gaza to work in Israel and the West Bank again, as was the case prior to the Second Intifada of 2000.
- Further lift restrictions on the entry of materials into Gaza by removing items from the so-called ‘dual use’ list. While holding a list of ‘dual use’ items is in line with international standards, the list compiled by the Israeli authorities is broader than existing international lists. This delays the recovery/reconstruction effort in Gaza, which also poses a security risk for Israel. It also hampers basic service provision and the capacity to respond to emergencies, such as flooding. Items that should be removed from the ‘dual use’ items list include all medical equipment, such as X-ray machines; pumps to deal with flooding; equipment for first responders, such as spare parts for ambulances or fire engines; equipment used to sustain the electrical supply (generators or material for Gaza’s sole power plant); or certain types of wood which is used to build temporary homes for people who lost their home in the 2014 war.
These steps should go hand in hand with efforts aimed at forging longer-term solutions: to end the occupation, lift the blockade, resolve internal Palestinian divisions, and ensure that Gaza remains an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) by linking it up the West Bank.
Are the Israelis correct in believing that any relaxation of their control of the Palestinians and their land will result in more violent acts being carried out against them? [Asked by Lloyd on Facebook]
"Unfortunately, not enough is being done on the ground to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens, but it also owes obligations to Palestinian residents living under its control."
Tania: We’ve heard many people in Israel, including senior security officials, noting that improving economic conditions in Gaza and cultivating hope there would have positive implications for stability in the region and thus for Israel’s security. Unfortunately, not enough is being done on the ground to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens, but it also owes obligations to Palestinian residents living under its control.
Control over travel and movement in the Palestinian territory is a major element of that control and it impacts almost every aspect of life, from the economy, to family life, and cultural and social activity. Inspections of goods and people crossing are legitimate, sweeping restrictions are not. Improving conditions for the civilian population in Gaza does not necessitate compromising Israel’s security needs. On the contrary, in the long run, it is the only way to achieve sustainable security in the region.
Is there a role for a substantial international presence in Gaza, for example at the crossings, or along the border with Israel, to improve movement and access, or to restore agricultural land to farmers?
Katleen: As some 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza remain ‘locked in’, denied free access to the remainder of the oPt and the outside world, and 80% are dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance, there is a role for a substantial international presence in Gaza, to complement and support the great efforts done by our national colleagues.
The first role is to continue providing humanitarian assistance, including rehabilitation of farmland and agricultural assets. Secondly, there is a need to continue advocating for the rights of Palestinians. Thirdly, an international presence at the Israeli and Egyptian crossing points with Gaza can ensure that the crossings operate to international standards, reduce security concerns around the crossings and ensure that crossings open in a predictable and continuous manner. This can lead to more crossings opening, an expansion of the number of people who are allowed to use the crossings – currently primarily patients, a limited number of students and business people, as well as staff of international organizations can exit via Erez crossing with Israel.
The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority can be taken as a starting point. This agreement aimed to facilitate the movement of goods and people within the Palestinian Territories and open an international crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation.
Lastly, international actors also have the obligation to ensure the local authorities fulfill their responsibilities towards the population. This includes discussions on how to solve the civil servant salary crisis, investing in development projects such as infrastructure upgrades or the sea port, and to provide technical and capacity-building support to the many well-qualified people who, due to the blockade, have not been able to refresh their skills.
Erez Crossing, Gaza Strip, on the border with Israel. Photo: Nuria Oswald | Gisha
To what extent can Gaza be reconnected with the West Bank (economically, politically, socially), and what will make it happen?
Tania: Hamas and Fatah, the two major Palestinian political factions, maintain de facto, internal control of Gaza and parts of the West Bank respectively, following clashes in mid-2007, which culminated in Hamas’s takeover of Gaza. Movement restrictions between the two parts of the Palestinian territory pre-date this internal dispute and include increasingly strict criteria for travel between the areas already beginning in the 90's and a ban on travel of students from Gaza to the West Bank from the year 2000.
The factional split has exacerbated the divide between Gaza and the West Bank by splitting the Palestinian government and legal system. But restrictions on movement imposed by Israel undermine economic and social ties that provide a foundation for a healthy society and could bolster cooperation until unity is restored. We’ve seen certain elements of what Israel calls the 'separation policy' can be lifted overnight. No special arrangements or agreements were required, just political will. From our conversations with those who turn to us for legal assistance to obtain permits and our research, we know that families, businesses, and academic institutions are eager to re-connect despite years of separation and attempts to isolate Gaza from the West Bank.
What can we do in the United States to make things better for all the Gazan children? [Asked by Maryam on Facebook]
Katleen: Allow me to answer this question first as the mother of a boy who is almost six, if he had been a child in Gaza, he would have lived through two wars and just missed a third. Mothers in Gaza want exactly the same as I do, a child that feels happy and safe, that can go to school and play, gets her vaccinations on time, and can drink clean water.
"Allow me to answer this question first as the mother of a boy who is almost six, if he had been a child in Gaza, he would have lived through two wars and just missed a third. Mothers in Gaza want exactly the same as I do, a child that feels happy and safe, that can go to school and play, gets her vaccinations on time, and can drink clean water."
These are all basic rights. We have seen as recently as last week, when it looked likely that UNRWA would not be able to open its schools for nearly 250,000 children in Gaza due to a funding shortfall, how even the most fundamental rights are under threat. Luckily, due to funding from several countries including the US, the crisis was averted for this year, but nothing prevents this from happening again next year.
The right to health, education, and other basic services needs to be safeguarded from political disagreements. There are concrete plans in many sectors, such as electricity, water, or health that will mean that children do not have to adjust their schedules to when electricity or water is available. While I am writing this, the electricity has been cut in my neighbourhood, just at the time when many children are getting ready for their first day back at school. They need electricity to take a shower or to eat breakfast. When they come back from school, they will need light to do their homework. However, electricity cuts in Gaza average around 12-16 hours per day.
These children grew up in Gaza, where last year's hostilities resulted in damages to thousands of homes and about 100,000 people remain internally displaced. Photo: At Tuffah, Gaza | OCHA
Significant donors and political actors such as the US, as well as the rest of the international community, can provide both funding and a political push to make sure that the plans to have a more reliable electricity supply, or better quality water, in Gaza are implemented. This is also detailed in a UN report that asks “will Gaza be a liveable place in 2020?” This report notes that hundreds of schools and health centres will be needed by 2020, a 1,000 additional doctors are required, the electricity supplies need to be doubled, and more than 70,000 homes are needed to deal with population growth and sub-standard housing.
Some 550 children lost their lives during the war last summer, and I can still clearly remember the piercing blue eyes of one father we met during the war. He had just lost several children in the UN school in Jabaliya. This school was used as a shelter for internally displaced persons, and when fighting escalated in the area, the parents decided to move the children from the playground where they were sleeping to one of the classrooms for their safety. This classroom was hit and at least 17 people were killed and 99 injured, according to the UN Secretary-General’s Board of Inquiry. While this father will forever feel the loss of his children, the international community, including the US, has the obligation to hold those responsible accountable and make sure that situations like these are prevented in the future.
In summary, children in Gaza deserve to have the same rights and opportunities for a bright future as all other children.
Read part two of our Q&A with Tania Hary and Katleen Maes here.