GAZA CITY, Gaza — A ceasefire begins, a ceasefire breaks down, and the Palestinians of the Gaza strip fall one by one victim to the bloody maw of war waged between its Hamas rulers and Israel.
Amid the nightmarish destruction of Gaza, the Catholic Church is working with fellow Christian churches and aid organizations to provide humanitarian relief and light a candle of hope for the Palestinian territory’s 1.8 million people.
The death toll in Gaza has exceeded 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom are civilians, while more than 10,000 are injured, and hundreds of thousands are displaced in the 139 square mile territory. At least 67 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have died in efforts to destroy terror tunnels and rockets that have displaced thousands of Israelis from their homes in the south.
Speaking with the Register from Gaza City, Matthew McGarry, Catholic Relief Services’ country representative for Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, gave an account earlier this month of the humanitarian situation facing the war-battered people of Gaza.
What’s the scope of the devastation in Gaza?
It’s quite widespread, but very targeted. I got back into Gaza yesterday and was driving around town in the city center … every block or every second block, there is one house or one floor of an apartment building, or a mosque, or a clinic, or a shop just annihilated. It was an F-16 strike, or multiple strikes, and completely obliterated.
So to an outside observer, it doesn’t look like anything has returned to normal, because every block a house is gone. Whereas in other neighborhoods, the city of Rafah, itself in the south which are in the buffer zone — a three-kilometer strip that was basically declared a no-go zone by the Israeli army and where the ground troops were largely operating — there are entire neighborhoods that are just gone…It looks like a scene out of Aleppo, or Dresden [in 1945], where it is just rubble for block after block. The damage is total in some places.
The people we are serving so far coming from those neighborhoods are families whose houses are completely destroyed. They are staying out in the open or with relatives.
Drinking water is in extreme short supply. Gaza sits on top of a contaminated aquifer: turn on the tap water, and it comes out brackish and salty. The only way they can get drinking water is to run the ground water through the desalination process, or to import your water from somewhere else. [Gaza] mostly runs on two hours of power, every two days, for the most of the last month. Unless you have a generator, you can’t desalinate the water.
How many people have been affected by the fighting? What are the biggest humanitarian concerns?
Recent numbers I have seen have it at half a million people displaced. It is a little bit less than a third of the entire population of Gaza. There are varying degrees of severity; people who ran out in the middle of the night without shoes [after having been] warned their houses are going to be blown up. And two seconds later they have nothing.
In terms of humanitarian crisis, the biggest concerns are primarily access to clean water, because it is such a finite commodity. Food is generally still available, but it is getting food to the hands of the people who need it that is challenging. … There’s a great risk of outbreaks of communicable disease with the numbers of displaced people in schools, camps, and private houses, without access to hygiene items, cleaning facilities, that sort of thing.
How are CRS’s relief workers holding up? What’s the danger they face?
There were tremendous risks in the past month, and I have seen people perform quite heroically, and getting out in the midst of active fighting … Our office had been closed for the better part of two weeks. It was too dangerous for staff to come and go from the office. There was not much we could do, because it was too unsafe. We couldn’t get herds of people together for distribution.
Starting with the [first] ceasefire, almost two weeks ago, the teams were able to get out and start distributing hygiene kits, kitchen supplies, water storage equipment, for 500 households, 500 families as of yesterday and close to 3,000 people. If the ceasefire holds, close to four or five hundred families a day.
But some people took significant risks on getting out, getting people registered [for aid], and getting these items distributed while there was still active fighting.
What has been the humanitarian impact of Egypt and Israel’s blockade on Gaza?
Movement and access in and out of Gaza for people and for goods has been heavily constrained, which then gave birth to the tunnel economy. Until about a year ago, there were hundreds of tunnels running between the underground between Egypt and Gaza, because that was one of the only ways to get in large volumes of a lot of commercial goods.
The impact has been disastrous for an already fragile economy. Unemployment was at 30% , now closer to 40% , with a spike at the times when the blockade was intensified. People normally would go three nautical miles out to sea. Farther out, their boats were potentially sunk or they were arrested, so the waters were pretty heavily overfished, and are not real productive anymore.
For a lot of people, it is basically impossible to get out of Gaza. But this only really came back into international attention last month, because of the ferocity of the fighting. Gaza was in a very difficult, potentially full-blown, humanitarian crisis situation six weeks before the conflict. We and other organizations said [Gaza] is really kind of perched on the edge of a potential humanitarian crisis, and it wouldn’t take much to push it over. And with the fighting in the last month being intense, it has emphatically pushed the situation into a full-on humanitarian crisis.
Hamas diverted Israeli concrete meant for Gazan civilians to build terror tunnels instead. Are there any proposals about how to rebuild Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, but with international oversight of construction materials?
From what I’ve heard there are always different proposals on the table. There is still a Palestinian unity government, so there’s been talk of the government from Ramallah taking a more active role in the management of Gaza again as was the situation before 2006-2007 [before the Hamas takeover]. I’ve seen proposals for a protracted 10-year [U.N.] custodianship of Gaza. I’ve seen proposals for E.U. and U.S. troops to man the buffer zones around Gaza and the border crossings to allow freedom of movement. There are proposals for the complete demilitarization of Gaza in exchange for a $50-billion reconstruction plan — one of Israel’s conditions — but in order to rebuild Gaza, Hamas has to disarm and Hamas said they will resist anyone who tries to take their weapons away at this stage. So, there are a lot of different possibilities.
What is CRS doing to address people’s immediate needs?
As far as our immediate response, we’re distributing these hygiene kits, kitchen sets, and water storage equipment, to 3,000 households. We’ve done about 600 of those so far ... We’re planning to do quite a bit of [collaborative] work to rehabilitate private spaces to potentially provide cleaning services to these public shelters where people are staying, to maintain save hygienic conditions there. We’ve helped deliver USAID-funded supplies, medicines to private hospitals in Gaza, and we’ll be delivering additional medical supplies to a network of private clinics here. We plan to provide some psycho-social support, because again, it has been traumatic not only for people who participate in our programs, but also for our partners and staff.
So we have a pretty sizeable response at this point which we are looking to scale up, not just humanitarian aid, but also to be a positive influence for recovery and eventual reconstruction.
What key aspects of the Gazan situation should Catholics in the United States know?
I want to highlight how completely abnormal, unnatural, and unsustainable the condition of Gaza is. There are 1.8 million people that live in this tiny little stretch of land without the capacity to grow enough food to support itself on a tiny, contaminated aquifer. We can’t get in or out, or sail more than three miles off of the coast. And this is not a new situation, but one that has grown over quite some time.
For those concerned about the situation here, there are opportunities, there are things we can do as engaged American Catholics to make a difference, and be supportive of a peaceful, lasting solution to this conflict.
What can we do to help?
We have a joint initiative by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services, called Catholics Confront Global Poverty. It is not based solely on this issue, but peace in the Holy Land is one of the major preoccupations of the joint effort of the USCCB and CRS, so people can go to the web space for that: confrontglobalpoverty.org. There are prayer resources for American Catholics, there are plans where they can come as either tourists or pilgrims to the Holy Land, there are resources to people to contacting their congressional representatives. They need to know what we think and that securing lasting peace for Israel and Palestine is of great importance to us.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.