By Sami El-Yousef
Starting to look beyond the Emergency Intervention
This was our second visit to Gaza after the war that ended on 26 August 2014. Not to forget how ugly this war was, the following UN statistics summarize the situation on the ground at the end of the war:
- 51 days of hostilities (7 July — 26 August 2014),
- Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) military activity included 5,085 airstrikes; 8,210 bombs and missiles dropped; 15,736 naval projectiles; 36,718 land projectiles
- Hamas military activity included 1,676 mortar bombs; and 4,584 rockets
- Palestinians killed: 2,131 of whom 1,473 are civilians including 501 children and 257 women
- At least 142 families had lost three or more members in the same incident, for a total of 739 civilian fatalities
- Israelis killed: 71 including 66 soldiers
- Palestinians injured: 11,231 including 3,436 children, 3,540 women, and 418 elderly. It is estimated that 1,000 of the children injuries will lead to permanent disabilities
- Internally displaced persons amounts to 110,000
- Housing units completely destroyed or severely damaged: 18,000 with an additional 37,650 units sustaining damages deeming them inhabitable
- Damage to water infrastructure leaving 450,000 unable to access municipal water
- Destruction of sole power plant translates to 18 hour power outages daily
- Health: 62 hospitals and clinics have been damaged
- Education: 220 schools damaged including 22 completely destroyed
- Trauma: 373,000 children in need of psychosocial support
- Business: 419 businesses and workshops damaged and 128 completely destroyed
- Hostilities forced farmers and herders to abandon 17,000 hectares of croplands as well as much of its agricultural infrastructure including greenhouses, irrigation systems, animal farms, fodder stocks and fishing boats
- Access to sea prohibited for 50 days
- Unemployment very high reaching 70% of youth aged 20-24.
As a result, CNEWA and its operating agency in the Middle East, Pontifical Mission, with the aid of many generous donors around the world, launched a three-phased emergency intervention which raised about $1.2 million. This surpassed the original plans of a more limited intervention of about half a million dollars. Clearly, people of goodwill around the world responded generously when they realized the disproportionate level of destruction and suffering. Thus, the purpose of this report is two-fold: first, to brief our many generous donors about the progress of the emergency intervention and secondly, to give an eyewitness account and assessment to our many friends and supporters about the reality on the ground some two months after the hostilities ceased. I will start with an update about each of the three phases.
Phase I — Support for Health Sector
Child patient at the NECC Mother and Child Clinic in Shaja’iah Gaza City.
The first phase was the medical intervention concentrated in the health sector. This actually started while the war was still underway. This phase targeted two institutions, namely the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital and the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) three mother and child clinics in Shaja?iah, Darraj, and Rafah. This consisted of providing much needed medicine, medical supplies and fuel, as well as covering the cost of treatment for over 10,000 patients during and after the war. The funds supported their services and also enhanced their position as community health providers providing quality services during an active war. The desperate calls from the directors of both institutions in the early days of the war still resonate in my mind. Through our intervention, these institutions procured medicine, medical supplies, and emergency care for patients. They also kept operations functioning with fuel for the electric generators supporting life support machines, diagnostic machines, laboratory tests, sterilizers and other operating systems during extensive blackouts. Additionally, these services were provided free of charge, especially for the displaced and marginalized patients coming from devastated areas. The testimonies given by the directors of these institutions confirmed that without our early intervention, they would have shut down within a week. Countless children, women, and elderly beneficiaries would have surely lost their lives.
Phase II — Institutional and Home Renovations
The second phase of the emergency intervention focused on rehabilitation work to institutions and homes damaged by the war. Support for institutions included repairing damages to the Rosary Sisters School to ensure it would be ready to receive students as early as three weeks after the war ended; the NECC clinics and its vocational training center; the residence of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word; the Greek Orthodox cemetery; the Palestine Avenir; as well as the Greek Orthodox Cultural Center and the Greek Orthodox School, among others. Visits were made to most of these institutions during our visit to check on progress. We are very proud that with the support provided, all these institutions are currently operational.
The more touching part of this intervention was the home renovations component, which surpassed our modest expectations. As the war unfolded, I was advised by my various partners in Gaza not to include this element in the emergency appeal. Everyone thought this will be a short war, and usually Christian homes are spared much of the damage. However, we ended up with over 100 Christian homes that sustained minor-to-moderate damages. In fact, these homes account for some 25 percent of all Christian households in Gaza, according to the recent survey conducted in March 2014. Though some of the damages were minor, many were major; two homes were completely destroyed.
During the visit, I had the opportunity to visit five families who benefited from our program, and listen to their stories. Clearly, the scars are deep and it will be a long time before these families will be able to restore their lives. I will give a brief summary about three of the families:
Nazir and Yvonne Tarazi lived in an apartment building on the second floor adjacent to the Zafer 4 Tower — the apartment complex that was destroyed on the last day of the war. Nazir suffers from Parkinson’s disease and Yvonne’s ailments prevent her from standing unassisted. Both recounted that day when residents from the nearby tower were suddenly rushing into the street with their belongings after a warning missile hit the building. Realizing the urgent need to evacuate, but given their ailing conditions, Nazir and Yvonne were only able to reach the staircase with the assistance of their caregiver. Minutes later, an Israeli F-16 fired multiple missiles at the building, which brought it down. Shards of debris landed in the elderly couple’s bedroom. Relatives and civil defense personnel soon arrived at the scene and helped carry the couple out of the building and to safety. “What crime did we commit to deserve this in our last few years of our lives?” asked Nazir, then thanked God that they are still alive!
An anonymous person who wished not to be named and family lived on the seventh floor of the eleven-story Zafer 4 Tower. The day the Tower was reduced to rubble, the man was with his wife and two children in their apartment. Hearing commotion in the street, the family saw that all of their neighbors fled. No one had notified them that their building was a target by the IDF; they made a quick and smart decision to evacuate, carrying two prepared suitcases containing their valuables and belongings. A few minutes later, their apartment and all of the furnishings in it were gone as the entire building collapsed. The man said that he has gone back to the site every day to sift through the rubble for whatever precious items he could fine. His wife proudly showed me her hand-embroidered baptismal pieces that her husband had miraculously found in the rubble. She was holding on to them since these were the only pieces they could salvage to remind them of their memories. Again, the same question is repeated, “What crime did they commit to deserve this!” With funds from the home renovation project, CNEWA has covered rental costs for six months to help the family cope with their loss.
The last place I visited was the home Suheil Ayyad, his wife and three boys, two of whom finished college and the third is training to be a hairdresser. They live in a private home at the intersection of two streets. The day they became homeless was when Israeli F16s targeted a motorcycle on one street and a residential building on another. Running from one corner of their building to the next to take shelter was no easy task, but all five of them survived and continued to live in their partially damaged home until they received funds from our home renovation project. At some point during the war, they did not think they would survive and kept praying. The three boys continue to be unemployed despite their good qualifications and the father is unable to find work due to an injury last year. Our support made a small difference in the lives of this family.
As part of this second phase, a donation made by the Custody of the Holy Land assisted the Christian community with cash advances and grocery coupons during the war as banks were closed and countless people were stranded without cash. This was of great help during the war since most Christian families did not go to public shelters but rather took refuge with relatives and friends, which meant they were automatically excluded of food, water and hygiene packages which were distributed only at shelters.
Phase III — Psychosocial Intervention
During the visit, we stopped by the Rosary Sisters School to inspect the completed work to the wall and awning that sustained damages during the war. As we were going through the school premises, we made an unannounced visit to a 9th grade English class. We had met the class teacher months ago during an earlier visit; this day, she wanted to show us her students’ English language skills. I asked the students to tell us about their war experience. I am so glad I did, since the half-hour exchange that followed proved to be an invaluable experience. Their personal stories highlighted what these children went through, their fear and how deep their scars are. CNEWA’s psychosocial program will soon be implemented at this school and the other Christian schools which will help them deal with their emotional pain and help reduce their fear and anxiety. However, it will certainly take a very long time for our brothers and sisters in Gaza, especially the younger generation, to think positively and move on towards more normal lives.
The third component of our emergency intervention program in Gaza will focus on an expanded psychosocial program that will include the following components. Funding has been secured for most components and most programs will be launched no later than November 1st and will last for several months:
- Near East Council of Churches (NECC) — targeting the three clinics, the vocational training centers and their beneficiaries and staff of NECC. This will also include a component to provide psychosocial interventions at about 10 kindergartens operating in the same neighborhoods where the clinics are operating.
- Women’s Graduates Society — targeting 20 kindergartens and 7 public schools including students, teachers and support staff, as well as parents. The participating institutions are located in severely hit areas, concentrating on the northern and eastern parts of the Gaza Strip. This program will advance employment opportunities for 40 women graduates who participated in our previous 2013 program, having received psychosocial training and employment.
- Community Training Center and Crisis Management (CTCCM) — psychosocial support for students, teachers and support staff as well as parents affiliated with four Christian Schools in Gaza, namely, the Holy Family School, the Latin Patriarchate School, the Rosary Sisters School and the Lighthouse School.
- Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) — psychosocial support for members and staff of the YMCA as well as the kindergarten. This will target mostly the youth, but will extend support to mid-age people up to 55 years.
- The Myrrh Bearers Society — targeting the senior citizens from the age of 55 and above. This is the first time that a program will actually address this age group, which for the most part has been neglected in the past.
- Al-Ahli Arab Hospital — psychosocial support for patients of the hospital — the inpatient, outpatient, as well as the community outreach program. The staff of the hospital will also be included during implementation.
Given the United Nations estimates that 373,000 children are in need of psychosocial intervention — coupled with our own observations of the dire need of so many people in Gaza of all age groups — we hope that our program will help provide support for several thousand people.
I must admit that this second visit to Gaza after the ceasefire agreement was probably a bit more difficult than the previous one; it certainly carries a mixed bag of some cautious optimism and some outright pessimism. Almost two months had passed since the end of hostilities and the hard reality is certainly sinking in. The victory declared by Hamas at the end of the war was certainly premature, as absolutely nothing has been achieved. Despite promises of new electric generators from Turkey that would rebuild the sole power plant for the Gaza Strip and despite pledges from the international community of $5.4 billion for financial support towards the reconstruction of Gaza, these pledges have yet to make any difference in the lives of ordinary Gazans today.
The first day of our visit, we experienced the first rainfall of the season. The streets quickly flooded as rainwater mixed with the sewer lines and many of the manholes overflowed. The mobile homes set-up for some of the 110,000 internally displaced families could not withstand the rainfall and they sought refuge in the shelters, which are still open. The borders with Israel continue to be subject to excessive scrutiny and those with Egypt continue to be completely shut. The much needed building supplies are not making it through the border and probably will not come in anytime soon, leaving very grim prospects for the upcoming winter. Winter, the season that most Palestinians await patiently in the hope of good rainfall, is now dreaded by most Gazans as the sewage and water networks are still in ruins. Finally, the promised reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, despite many positive indications by politicians, seems stuck with no tangible results.
On a more positive note, the people of Gaza seem very heroic at the surface. They are slowly but surely going back to their normal lives and bravely picking up the pieces. The usual traffic jams are back, with people flooding markets and streets. At night, they are out and about, enjoying the quietness of the beach or strolling down the promenade. Given the economic misery, fewer people are going out to restaurants, but they find cheaper alternatives to enjoy themselves. There are cleanup crews at the sites of many of the demolished buildings that are clearing the rubble and collecting iron rods to recycle, as such materials continue to be on the “banned” list. This happened before, along with efforts to recycle concrete and building blocks, and it is happening again. Though this is not your standard green recycling effort, recycling construction material is certainly gaining popularity. Also, given the continuous lack of electricity, people are more conscious of such use, and green energy is picking up speed with more and more photovoltaic cells being used to better utilize solar energy for the generation of electric power. Finally the brightest sign of all is the push by many of our partners to start discussing projects outside of the emergency intervention, mostly in the training and job creation sector. This was the most refreshing, which does encourage ordinary Gazans to get back to normal life and be self sustaining rather than relying on charity of the world!
Our priority over the coming few months is to support our partners in Gaza, which will help beneficiaries regain a more normal lifestyle, sense of stability and help them rebuild their lives with dignity. I am sure we can count on the support of our friends around the world to help the Gaza community to get back to a better life style they truly deserve. Keep Gaza in your prayers.