How Gaza bucks the trend

Stephen Tunstall (@SCTunstall), an LCID member, writes from Gaza about the humanitarian situation following last year’s war, urging Labour to continue pursuing justice and peace for its beleaguered inhabitants. Stephen is Programmes Manager for Palestine and Israel at Embrace the Middle East.

I am constantly enthralled by Hans Rosling’s Gapminder presentations. Development statistics are rarely more interesting and less nerdy than when they are in his hands. A common theme in his lectures is that the world is actually getting better, despite what the cynics may have us believe. Across a whole range of indicators the gap between traditionally rich and poor countries is disappearing. Essentially, development works.

Against this assumption, that things generally get better, stands Gaza.Gaza GDP per capita has decreased 33% in the twenty years since the Oslo Accords were signed. Unemployment has tripled in fifteen years, with even once-safe government jobs no longer paying salaries. Before the Israeli-imposed blockade started in 2007, around 10,000 truckloads of goods were exported annually. In the first eleven months of 2014, just 150 trucks left Gaza. Mains power is now only available for six hours a day, while the sewage system is a public health risk, especially when it floods. In 2012 the UN warned that Gaza could be unliveable by 2020. It is already unliveable for many, a fact illustrated by the recent development of Palestinians joining the ranks of Mediterranean boat people, drowning in pursuit of freedom.

No place for a child

DSCN0718Only ultra-wealthy city states sustain a higher population density than Gaza, which also has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations in the world. This is only too evident as one moves around the Strip; there are children everywhere. You see them playing amidst the rust and rubble of side streets, with stones deputising for marbles, running perilously between cars, or these days warming themselves around open fires in hollowed out homes. All too frequently they are also found working – driving donkey carts, hawking sundries, and in the case of Fadi, harvesting breezeblocks from bomb sites.

I found Fadi in Shujaiya, the neighbourhood flattened during the Israeli bombing and ground assault last summer. Considering that children here tell you they are about four years older than you had predicted, I assume Fadi is about thirteen. He was loading his horse cart with rough boulders that his older brother was throwing down from on top the wreckage of the Al-Wafa hospital. It’s dangerous work, as there’s a high chance of finding unexploded ordinance among the ruins. The blocks were clearly heavy, and a cloud of white dust escaped as Fadi tipped each one on to the cart. I asked him how much a full cart of rubble would be worth. About 85p, he told me.

No sign of reconstruction

ReconstructionShujaiyais truly a shocking sight, but the scandal today is that I could actually recognise destroyed streets from the images I had seen shortly after the bombings.The wreckage is all in the same place; the same shaped concrete mounds formed of lopsided walls and mangled cables. The only sign of change is evidence that, amazingly, life has returned here. In amongst the bomb sites you see freshly hung washing, and people sitting in rooms with a sheet fluttering where a wall once stood.

Despite $5.4bn of aid being pledged for Gaza’s reconstruction at the Cairo conference in October, no one I’ve spoken to has seen much sign of it. Only a small proportion of these pledges have been fulfilled, and the much maligned UN supported reconstruction mechanism is yet to result in rebuilt homes. While houses stand in ruins, tens of thousands remain homeless. Multiplied by the loss of jobs and government salaries, a corresponding increase in crime and lawlessness, and shortages of medical supplies and services, these are truly bleak days. Most people are anticipating another conflict before long.

Political solutions

Money is not the problem, and it never has been. “We are not poor, we are made poor” Dr Bassam Abu Hamad, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Al-Quds University, told me. The solution to Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is not more aid, but a lifting of the blockade. “If you open the borders, let us trade and travel, we will be prosperous and you will see Gaza thrive.” Having seen how industrious and resilient Palestinians in Gaza are, it’s hard not to agree with him.

I have been able to hold my head a little higher since Labour drove parliament’s recognition of Palestine in October, and I look forward to a Labour government’s official recognition later this year. As Ed Miliband prepares to launch Labour’s internationalist vision, we must ensure a just peace in the Middle East is near the top of our agenda. The coming catastrophe in Gaza has political causes and political solutions. A Labour government must compel Israel to lift the siege and set a timeline for the realisation of Palestinian state, with repercussions if it fails to adhere to that timeline. While this will bring improvements in human security throughout the region and the world, the humanitarian imperative alone is sufficient. For the nearly two million people struggling to survive in Gaza, we might be the best hope they have.

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