International aid fuels resolve to tackle challenges

James Kon

The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to plague the world as millions of people have been infected and hundreds of thousands perished.

Gaza, the self-governing Palestinian territory that was already in a difficult humanitarian situation, is also hit by the pandemic. Currently, the number of cases is under control due to measures implemented by authorities and assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

This was stated by ICRC Spokesperson in Gaza Suhair Zakkout, in an interview with the Bulletin in conjunction with the World Humanitarian Day on ICRC’s role and the impact of COVID-19 in Gaza.

“In the past decade, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has been steadily deteriorating,” she said. “Before the COVID-19 crisis, the economic situation was the worst it had been since the conflict in 2014; four out of five families didn’t have sustainable income, the unemployment rate was over 50 per cent, an all-time record, with youth unemployment reaching almost 70 per cent. The poverty rate has dramatically increased over the past five years, reaching 53 per cent. This has impacted the ability of households to feed themselves nutritiously,” she said

She added, “Confinement is not new to Gaza. Gazans have been living under severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods for a decade and a half, paralysing its economy and affecting all aspects of life, and isolating it from the world.

The ICRC distributed wheat seedlings to farmers as well as others using a strain that is resistant to drought and salt water. PHOTOS: ICRC

“The new factor is that it now lives in two isolations; the one imposed on it, and an additional one that started when the world shut down and countries closed their borders, racing against time to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.”

While the pandemic remains controlled, 78 cases registered among people returned to Gaza from outside and remained in quarantine centres, she said.

“The fear of an outbreak is not totally eliminated. An outbreak of COVID-19 in Gaza could be catastrophic. The Gaza healthcare system would not be able to deal with patients infected with the coronavirus if the number exceeds a few dozen, especially since their treatment requires medical and laboratory equipment and special supplies and medications that are not available in hospitals and health centres in the Gaza Strip.”

She said the lockdown, while necessary to manage the risk of a severe coronavirus outbreak, has exacerbated the difficult situation.

“We are seeing a deterioration of the economic situation. Small businesses, including restaurants, which employ huge numbers of Gazans are no longer profitable. Shops are closing. Disposable incomes are falling, causing more closures. Farmers can’t sell their crops, as people focus on buying only the essentials. These effects are the hallmarks of a deflationary spiral. We’re seeing this happening in many parts of the world, but in Gaza there is no safety net. Gaza was already dependent on humanitarian aid. That is only truer now.”

She said the measures taken by the authorities have helped to control the virus in the quarantine centres.

Representing the ICRC in Gaza, she commended all the hard work and support of humanitarian actors.

“We stood next to the service providers to help the stretched systems to cope with the crisis. For example, we supported the Ministry of Health (MoH) by providing it with protective and vital medical equipment. We established a temporary infection control facility and upgraded the wastewater treatment plant at European Gaza Hospital. Mental health is as important as other basic needs, especially during this uncertain time. We provided technical training to 21 facilitators of the MoH’s Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support hotline.”

ICRC has repaired a water booster station, helping 15,000 people in Shoka/Rafah regain access to water and delivered chlorine testing meters and consumables in the Northern Governorate. ICRC has also repaired broken chlorine dosing pumps in 11 wells in Jabalia and Beit Lahia, improving safe water supply for 92,500 people.

“COVID-19 has changed daily life everywhere, although the pandemic is not the ICRC’s area of operation, our core mission of protecting and assisting people affected by armed conflict has not changed. As a humanitarian organisation, responding to the crisis has become a priority for the ICRC,” Zakkout said.

In light of the pandemic, the ICRC has worked with the Palestinian government to come up with an animation of a dialogue between the coronavirus and a child, for children to learn more about COVID-19 and help stop the spread of the virus.

“We feel how the community feels. Our proximity to the people enabled us to engage with them through different tools and platforms during this COVID-19 crisis. With the high Internet penetration rate in Gaza, we launched our community engagement projects for children despite the restriction of movement during COVID-19,” she said.

“Similar to many places in the world, especially during the initial phase of the pandemic, there was a lack of information, misinformation, and stigma concerning the virus. Therefore we felt it was important for us to roll out projects specifically to enhance children resilience against the virus.

“When we started to work on the project, we took into consideration to reach the children at home who also found it difficult to understand the new changes. Parents and especially mothers at home took on a big burden to teach their kids during the closure of schools and also to explain to them how to take care of themselves,” she said.

Speaking on the role of ICRC in Gaza for the past 53 years, she said, “Over the past five decades, the ICRC has brought about a difference in many people’s lives through its various activities and programmes. For more than 50 years now, the ICRC has visited detainees, re-united families, saved lives and supported livelihoods. But above all it has tried hard to stand up for people and to promote their rights and dignity. We are aware that all that has been done over the past five decades, still falls short of addressing the humanitarian needs in the Palestinian Territory and in bringing about a permanent and long lasting difference in people lives. This is regrettably an impossible mission absent of a real and long term political solution. Nevertheless, the ICRC takes pride in its presence by the Palestinian people over these years and in the efforts it has undertaken to alleviate some of the humanitarian consequences brought forward by more than 50 years of occupation.”

In terms of heatlh, she said the ICRC trained around 4,000 medical professionals on war trauma and vascular surgery to strengthen local capacities and donated over 2,000 tonnes of medical equipment. Close to 38,000 war-wounded patients were treated at several ICRC supported hospitals. A total of 23,000 patients with different forms of disabilities also benefitted from physical rehabilitation services received by the Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre, which is supported by the ICRC in Gaza (since 2008).

For protection, the ICRC has regularly visited all Palestinian detainees held in Israeli detention facilities. An average of 400 prison visits were annually conducted. The ICRC also facilitated close to 3.5 million family visits for Palestinians visiting their detained family members in Israeli detention facilities.

In terms of support to livelihood, she said the ICRC distributed 47,000 tonnes of food to the most vulnerable. It also supported 100,000 families with various livelihood projects or cash for work programmes. In 1968, ICRC also started distributing tents and blankets to displaced people. A total of 400,000 people also received various assistance items in the wake of their displacement.

For accessibility of water and sanitation, she highlighted that over the past five decades close to three million people in Gaza and the West Bank have had better access to water as a direct result of ICRC’s support to various water networks, wells and filling points. Around 300 Palestinian villages also benefitted from ICRC’s water distribution programmes when water used to be provided by water-trucks. A total of 14 heavy duty generators were provided by the ICRC at the height of conflict to enable the functioning of municipal services. In Gaza, 1.2 million also benefitted from ICRC’s support to wastewater treatment plants.

Describing how ICRC has impacted the life of Palestinians as depicted in published photos, she said, “These photos capture joyful moments in the lives of Gaza farmers, who regained access to their farming land for the first time in 15 years. The ICRC’s Gaza land rehabilitation project, launched in 2015, has helped hundreds of farmers restore their land and cultivate their crops in the Gaza border area. Until the project began, land between 100 and 300 metres from the border stood fallow. Even though they owned patches of land in this area, farmers were unable to access it due to security restrictions, forcing them to earn their living in other ways. Some 10 per cent of Gaza’s agricultural land lies within this tract of land.”

In cooperation with the Israeli authorities, Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture and others, the ICRC is facilitating access to this tract of land for farmers, who had been unable to farm it since at least 2007.

“The project involves several phases. First the ICRC facilitates the clearance of remnants of war and other unexploded ordinances from the land in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior in Gaza. The ICRC also conducts mine-risk education sessions for labourers and farmers, so they are aware of the dangers and to minimise the risk of accidents. Then the land is levelled with bulldozers, necessary due to so many of years of neglect. In the second phase, the land is ploughed, crops are sown and in the third phase the crops are harvested in May.”

Over the farming year, the ICRC accompanies farmers as they access the land for the three phases: once for ploughing, once for sowing and once for harvesting. This is why they are cultivating wheat, a rain-fed crop that does not need daily tending. In subsequent years, farmers have been able to access their land without the ICRC’s presence.

As part of the project, the ICRC is also distributing wheat seedlings to the farmers, as well as others in the border area, using a strain that is resistant to drought and salt water. Since the project started in 2015, it has covered more and more localities in the border area, allowing around 670 farmers regaining access to their land. The project is aimed at restoring the livelihoods of farmers who lost access to their land, creating a more independent and sustainable local economy and allowing people to live the dignified life they deserve.

Conveying a message in conjunction with the World Humanitarian Day, Zakkout said, “The day is marked this year amidst a global crisis that requires a global response and solidarity across borders. I hope we could all take a moment to thank humanitarian workers and frontliners, who are fighting back against COVID-19. Respect, kindness and compassion is the way to overcome this weird time, I am sure that no one will be safe unless we are all safe.”