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Swiss aid to Gaza takes a battering

Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israel after the start of the ground attack

(Keystone / Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Israeli ground forces entered Gaza on Saturday, eight days after the start of intensive air raids on the Palestinian territory.

The Swiss Sunday newspapers report on the ongoing fighting, which has claimed hundreds of lives and is hampering the work of aid agencies in the region.

An editorial in the German language NZZ am Sonntag criticises both sides for their lack of moderation, but warns Israel that the ground offensive will "mainly benefit Hamas".

The German language SonntagsBlick and French language Matin Dimanche carry an interview with Israel's ambassador in Bern, Ilan Elgar, who says his country "does not like killing". He says the Israeli army always telephones Palestinians to warn them to leave their houses when there is about to be a raid.

According to UN sources, even before the ground attack started at least 433 people had been killed, and more than 2000 injured. A quarter of the victims were reported to be civilians – something Elgar denied.

Israel has also denied that there is a "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza.

The children's charity Terre des Hommes on Sunday spoke of a "massacre" of children in the Gaza Strip and said 72 children have died in the Israeli air attacks and ground offensive.

It called on Switzerland as the depository nation of the Geneva Conventions to fulfil its obligations towards the civilian population, to ensure that humanitarian aid is provided and the blockade is lifted.

Swiss aid

Switzerland has been heavily involved in providing humanitarian support to Palestinian refugees for the past 60 years, ever since the creation of the state of Israel. Originally most of its support took the form of funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency – the body set up to look after Palestinian refugees – and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But after the signing of the Oslo accord of 1993, which among other things created the Palestinian Authority and put more power into the hands of the Palestinians, Switzerland has had its own programme in the West Bank and Gaza aimed both at development and at promoting good governance.

The pillars of the programme are the promotion of human rights, economic development and institution building, with the aim of creating a viable Palestinian state.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) coordinates Swiss aid to the Palestinian territories.

Partners in Gaza include the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, the Welfare Association, which runs employment generation projects, the Agricultural Development Association, as well as international organisations active in the Palestinian territories.

The 18-month blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel when Hamas took power in the Strip in June 2007, had already complicated the work of many of these partners. The recent fighting has naturally made things much more difficult still.

Current situation

The SDC now faces problems in keeping track of what is happening on the ground in Gaza.

"People are hampered in their movements and have to hide at home. The infrastructure is heavily damaged and the electrical power is often cut," Toni Frisch, SDC deputy director-general, and head of its humanitarian aid department, told swissinfo by email.

"A Palestinian employee of the SDC in Gaza delivers short reports on the situation and is in continuous contact with SDC's local partner organisations in Gaza - mobiles and internet are still working."

Despite the difficulties in communication, the SDC is certain that the people of Gaza are in a "very precarious situation", with problems in obtaining food, fuel and medical care, and suffering power cuts, Frisch said.

One of the SDC partner organisations, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, has reported massive damage to its main building, incurred when a police station 70 metres away was bombed. Ceilings and walls collapsed, and furniture was destroyed.

As Frisch explained, Israeli air strikes are targeting the homes of Hamas members, but in the densely populated Strip this risks damaging the civilian infrastructure as well.

Prospects

As for whether the current events will have any impact on Swiss policy in Gaza, Frisch said that projects with good governance components are still of "utmost importance", and are not called into question by current events.

"Switzerland will need, nevertheless, to reassess the partner's situation after the ceasefire and evaluate how it can best continue the cooperation," he added.

Switzerland maintained its projects in Gaza even after Hamas took power there in June 2007. This is in accordance with Switzerland's policy to maintain dialogue with all parties and actors, Frisch explained.

"There has never been direct support by SDC to Hamas or a Hamas affiliated organisation," he added.

"Support of the Gazan communities in the field of mental health, economic support (especially in agriculture) and youth programs correspond to urgent needs and strengthen local capacities."

The current fighting will certainly have an impact on Swiss activities.

"The SDC is constantly rethinking the way of working in a context that is continuously changing and politically very sensitive," Frisch said.

"The consequences of the fighting will probably call for intensified humanitarian efforts. Switzerland will base its strategy on a clear needs assessment that will be performed together with our Cooperation Office in East Jerusalem and our partners."

"When the current hostilities end, Switzerland will reassess the situation. New priorities will certainly emerge."

swissinfo, Julia Slater

The Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip is a strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean coast about 41 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide at its widest point, a total of 360 square kilometres.

It is bounded by Israel to the north and east, and Egypt in the south.

It has a population of about 1.5 million, giving it a population density of over 4,000 per square kilometre.

The bulk of the inhabitants are refugees, or descendants of refugees, forced to leave their homes in what is now Israel when the State of Israel was established in 1948.

From 1948 to 1967 Gaza was administered by Egypt.

In 1967 Israel occupied the territory and created 21 Jewish settlements there.

After the Oslo accords of 1993, the Palestinian Authority took over the administration, leaving only the settlements and military areas under Israeli control.

Israel withdrew completely in 2005, but retained control of the border points.

In Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas won a clear victory.

After a struggle with the Fatah party of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

Many aid donors have refused to deal with it, on the grounds that it is a terrorist organisation.

Israel has kept the territory under a tight blockade since June 2007, allowing through only the minimum of supplies.

Palestinian militants meanwhile fired rockets into southern Israel, in particular at the town of Sderot close to the border.

A six-month ceasefire agreed between the two sides in June 2008 was not renewed when it ended in December.

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