Humanitarian desperation in Gaza

“The only talk must be of ceasefires and peace, and the safety and rights of ordinary people must be the urgent top priority.”

By Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International

Two days ago an Oxfam employee living in Gaza risked a desperate drive from his house to find some fresh food for his four young children. There is no fruit or meat and little milk in Gaza now, but he found a few expensive vegetables. And then, because of ongoing bombing and bullet fire, he had to drive around and around the streets near his house, because a parked car is a sitting target until, in the briefest of lulls, he could dash into his home to his terrified family.

Oxfam has had to suspend much of its work within Gaza including one of its largest programs – assisting 65,000 people – for security reasons, though a number of Oxfam partners continue to carry out essential work against impossible odds. UN food aid, relied on by 80% of the Gazan population of 1.5 million, has been severely disrupted for the last week because of the bombing.

Gaza’s civilian population has already borne the brunt of an increasingly severe blockade for the last 18 months, impeding access to a wide range of goods and supplies and making it hard for people to move freely in and out of Gaza. It has been a form of collective punishment illegal under international humanitarian law yet tolerated by the international community.

Now with the ground incursion on the back of a week-long bombing campaign a critical humanitarian situation has become a desperate one. One local Oxfam staff member in Gaza describes power blackouts, people trapped in their homes by the violence – cold, with windows open so they are not blown in by bombs, children screaming in the night.

Lack of fuel is one of the major problems, shutting the Gaza power plant and leaving many people without power for most of the day. Bombing has also damaged power lines and energy-generating infrastructure. Without fuel and power, pumps for wells and water sanitation will increasingly go out of action. Hospitals overwhelmed by casualties are desperately working with back-up generators - if they crash (through overuse or when fuel stocks finally end), desperation will become devastation.

It is way past time for both Israel and Hamas to renounce violence and to respect the rights of ordinary people. The vulnerable civilians of Gaza, including thousands of children, urgently need an immediate and permanent ceasefire strictly implemented by both sides.

EU and other politicians talk of possible ‘humanitarian pauses’- to a clear negative response so far from the Israeli side. Any pause in hostilities must be welcome; its rejection is gravely disappointing. But a brief cessation of hostilities on its own cannot relieve the increasingly critical situation for ordinary people in Gaza.

They are mostly dependent on regular food aid and are reeling from a week of bombing. They cannot be supplied adequately with cooking fuel or food stocks in a ‘pause’ from attacks of a day or two. Nor can overwhelmed hospitals create more bed space, or give proper treatment to the injured, before more dead and injured arrive at their doors. Nor can children go back to school for two days only to then cower frightened at home, nor can the serious work begin of tackling the psychological damage that many civilians suffer in war.

A ceasefire must be combined with a lifting of the blockade so Gazan civilians have access to a wide range of supplies, not just the restricted food, medicines and basic goods that were being allowed through before the bombing started. Humanitarian workers need to be able to work freely in the Gaza Strip without risking their own lives.

Much greater pressure needs to be put on both Israel and Hamas. International players, especially the UN, but also the EU, League of Arab States and others should be engaged in rapid and urgent shuttle diplomacy in the region, engaging intensively to get both to a short run ceasefire and to serious longer term peace talks.

We need an immediate UN security council resolution condemning both the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli government and indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas. It should demand an immediate, comprehensive and permanent truce and an end to the blockade, allowing access for humanitarian and commercial goods, and for people too.

There must be no business as usual in international politics in the Middle East until Gazans have a chance to eat, drink and move around with some degree of normalcy, not cower in their homes wondering if and how they will survive. The only talk must be of ceasefires and peace, and the safety and rights of ordinary people must be the urgent top priority.