The war in Gaza is a crisis on top of an emergency
It is crucial that humanitarian aid reaches the civilians of Gaza. They needed it long before this latest Israeli bombardment began
October 20, 2023
President’s Biden success in pressing Israel and Egypt to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza through the Rafah crossing, and the pledge by Rishi Sunak to support its delivery, are welcome—but the volume promised falls far short of what is needed. Twenty trucks will be permitted entry a day, many fewer than the approximately 450 per day that entered Gaza before this latest war, when conditions were already a humanitarian catastrophe, and the 100 that the UN says are essential.
NGOs, aid agencies and actors were already struggling to wake up the world to the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, years before the Hamas atrocities of 7th October. This tiny, overcrowded strip of land has been a hellhole for ages.
The UN wrote a report back in 2012 in which it concluded that Gaza would be “unliveable” by 2020 without a significant improvement in basic conditions. The challenges of day-to-day life there, under a 16-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade and 56 years of Israeli occupation, are immense.
When Israel reacted to Hamas’s brutal murder of 1,400 Israelis, it started its sixth major war against Gaza since 2005. The vast majority of the around 2.3m Palestinians in Gaza are civilians who have had no involvement in the fighting, no ability to affect events, and no way of leaving. More than half are children. They were already impoverished, with high rates of unemployment and aid dependency. Many were already traumatised and will be even more so now: more than a million have been displaced by the bombardments, and many others had no safe place to flee to. Palestinian friends told me that families gather all in one room so that they would die together.
Israel’s complete siege of Gaza is collective punishment of a civilian population, which experts say is a war crime in international law. Even before it began, the water in Gaza was unfit for animal, let alone human consumption. Israel, according to the UN, has now bombed water facilities, and Palestinian civilians are running out of water and food. Gaza’s main power plant had to shut down, meaning that hospitals have no power. Doctors report that they are having to carry operations in the dark and can no longer sterilise medical equipment.
Juliette Touma, the spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestine refugees, summed it up chillingly on 18th October: “Time is running out for the people in Gaza.” When it does, they will die. Already, they are being forced to drink the dirtiest of water, some even sea water. Imagine the prospect of dying of thirst. Is there a worse way to die?
It may be a long time until the full extent of the destruction, human and physical, can be established. One can only imagine how long any reconstruction will take, especially if the blockade continues and Gaza is not allowed to be free. Reconstruction from earlier Israeli bombardments has still not happened—this latest phase of destruction will take years, if not decades, to repair.
Humanitarian agencies with workers on the ground have had to deal with the overwhelming challenge of the situation but also with staff who are enduring great stress. Some have been killed, have lost loved ones or have been displaced. Most days, those of us with friends and colleagues in Gaza wait for text messages letting us know if they are still alive. Many can no longer charge their mobile phones due to the lack of power.
The only way to push back this humanitarian catastrophe is a ceasefire and lifting of the siege. Anything less than that will not suffice.
How can the international community help? A ceasefire is vital, even if this late. Aid cannot be distributed under bombardment. The siege, which should never have been imposed, must be lifted. Full, safe humanitarian can go through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but the crossing with Israel should also be used which is where supplies entered before this latest onslaught.
Finally, with so many thousand civilians having lost their lives, the proper way to honour them is to ensure this never happens again. When a ceasefire is secured, a lasting agreement that brings freedom, security and dignity to both peoples is vital.