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Winter exacerbates hopelessness on the Gaza Strip

Andreas Gorzewski / sbDecember 20, 2014

Winter is setting upon the Gaza Strip, which was all but destroyed in seven weeks of war between Israel and Hamas. The humanitarian disaster continues for tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes and work.

Gaza Zerstörung 27.08.2014
Image: Reuters

The war-damaged streets of Gaza were under water. A few hours of heavy rain at the end of November were enough to flood parts of the densely-populated coastline. Thousands were forced to leave their homes. "We had to use schools to accommodate all of the people," explains Adnan Abu Hasna, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the Gaza Strip.

In the coming weeks, temperatures are expected to continue to fall and more rain is forecast. The area can expect to see more flooding, which will worsen the humanitarian crisis there. "If it rains, there will be another disaster in Gaza," Abu Hasna told DW. After all the damaged caused by the seven-week war over the summer, Mother Nature is now threatening to further destroy the region.

For the people living in the Gaza Strip, the summer's war between the Israeli Army and the radical Palestinian organization Hamas in July and August was only the most recent in a series of armed clashes. But none of the wars that preceded it were as bloody or left behind such destruction. Over 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks and more than 11,000 were wounded. More than 70 Israelis died. Apartment buildings and schools were leveled and the infrastructure on the 360-square-kilometer Gaza Strip was destroyed. Tens of thousands of people were made homeless and were forced to join the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have lived in temporary shelters for decades and are dependent upon aid.

Palestinians in Gaza trying to stay dry after flash flooding
Gaza has flooded many times in the past few yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Saber

UN organizations and private, state-run aid agencies are trying to help. "850,000 refugees are dependent upon our humanitarian aid," according to Abu Hasna. Along with providing clean water and food, the organizations also give money for housing and reconstruction. They are also important employers, as most people living in the Gaza Strip have no regular income.

High risk of flooding

The aid organization Oxfam International also pays workers to improve the shoddy canalization system. "The risk of flooding in Gaza is very high," Arwa Mhanna, who works for Oxfam in Gaza, told DW.

The systems for water purification and sewage are completely overburdened, for one, because some of the mains were destroyed in the war, but also because Israel for years has been blocking the import of construction material and technical equipment to the area.

The power supply, which fuels many heaters, is crashing all the time. The only power station on the Gaza Strip was badly damaged by bombs. According to Oxfam, it has been running at 50-percent capacity since November.

"Power blackouts have been reduced from 18 to 12 hours per day," Mhanna said. That means Gaza's 1,8 million people only have electricity for half of the day, despite the fact that energy needs increase in winter. "That not only affects households, but also medical care, water systems and sewage treatment plants," Mhanna added.

Destroyed buildings in Gaza
Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed in the warImage: picture-alliance/dpa

UNWRA needs more money

More money is required to finance the necessary aid. The UNWRA last week made a desparate plea to the international community to do more for the Palestinians.

"From January on, we won't have enough money to pay rent subsidies or to finance the shelters for tens of thousands of people," UNWRA spokesperson Abu Hasna said. For the upkeep of shelters alone, 624 million dollars is needed because 96,000 accommodations are damaged. "We currently have 18,000 homeless people living in temporary school shelters," Abu Hasna said.

But even if there was more money, not all problems would be able to be fixed over night. The isolated Gaza Strip is not receiving the amount of construction materials it needs. To enable this, UN organizations, Palestinian authorities, Hamas and the Israeli government would all have to work together. Israel controls all goods that enter and leave the region. Because Gaza has no ports or airports of its own, it is at the mercy of Israel's border control. For security reasons on the Sinai Peninsula, the border to Egypt is normally closed.

In the face of desperation, destruction and unemployment, the people in Gaza are hopeless, Abu Hasna said. And there is a lot of anger: "A lot of negative energy is building up in Gaza. We fear it could eventually lead to escalations if the situation there doesn't improve."