Gaza faces humanitarian "nightmare"

A Palestinian woman sitting next to sacks of flour at a UN aid distribution centre in Gaza City Keystone

Swiss aid officials have joined international agencies in warning of a major humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-held Gaza Strip.

This content was published on June 26, 2007 - 08:11

On Monday the United Nations called for the re-opening of a key border crossing between Gaza and Israel to avert such a disaster and the collapse of the economy in the Palestinian enclave.

The UN provides food aid for 860,000 Palestinian refugees in Gaza but the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned of shortages of flour, rice, food oil and other commodities within the next two to four weeks unless Israel opens border crossings.

Speaking from Jerusalem on Monday, Mario Carera, head of the Swiss Cooperation Office Gaza and West Bank, echoed that time was running out for the population.

"I think the humanitarian situation is really catastrophic, and everything depends on access to and from Gaza," he told swissinfo.

According to Swiss aid officials, the WFP has been able to get eight to ten trucks of food through the Kerem Shalom crossing over the past two days. But the Karni crossing, which can handle up to 400 trucks a day, has been closed by the Israelis for security reasons.

Swiss activity

On Monday a Palestinian mortar attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing, which was claimed by the militant group Islamic Jihad, forced a halt to crucial aid.

"Without a solution, it will mean a nightmare from a humanitarian standpoint. But this is not just a humanitarian issue, it's a disaster for the local economy as well," Carera said.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which has been present in the occupied territories since 1994, is spending around SFr20 million ($16.3 million) this year in Gaza and the West Bank.

Half goes on supporting the work of the UN, the WFP and the Swiss-run International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); the rest goes to around 15 Palestinian non-governmental associations working in the areas of mental health, education and human rights.

Freedom of movement

Carera said fears that international and local partners might be subject to looting or damage following the battle for control of Gaza ten days ago had not materialised.

He added that informal contacts between SDC partners and local Hamas officials regarding issues such as freedom of movement, pluralism and activity had so far been positive.

"But the security situation is still bad and there are big fears about this in Gaza," he said.

The Geneva-based ICRC, which is helping to treat more than 500 people wounded in the Gaza fighting, says it is dealing with a "medical emergency".

It says local medical staff are having to cope with severely stretched resources, including personnel, drugs and other medical supplies. In addition, important medical equipment has broken down.

"Humanitarian assistance alone is not going to alleviate the situation in Gaza. Economic development and commercial exchanges are really necessary to correct the ongoing deterioration of living conditions in the Gaza Strip," said Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Key facts

In 2006, the SDC's budget for the occupied territories was around SFr30 million ($25 million), up 30 per cent on 2005. For 2007, Swiss aid for the region is budgeted at SFr20.8 million.
Almost 4,000 people have been killed (around 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians) since the beginning of the intifada in 2000.
Nearly 50% of the population lives in poverty. The gross national product per inhabitant is $1,307.

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Gaza under siege

Hamas Islamists took control of the Gaza Strip in violent fighting with their secular Fatah counterparts earlier this month, triggering the closure of front-line crossing points.

All sides, including Israel, say they are committed to getting essential aid to the 1.5 million Gaza residents. However, the cargo checkpoint at Karni remains shut for security reasons and the World Food Programme says the remaining supply links are tenuous.

Donors have now relaxed the boycott on President Mahmoud Abbas's administration in the West Bank, but the United States and Israel say the embargo will remain in place on the Hamas administration in Gaza.

Some aid groups say the boycott may risk further radicalising Gaza residents, but analysts say there is little chance of international donors aiding a de facto Hamas administration still seen as threatening Israel.

Switzerland – unlike the US and the EU – did not suspend aid to the Palestinian population when Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006.

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