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The Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip

Casualties: Since December 27, there have been over 530 deaths and over 2,500 injured in Gaza.  Women and children account for about 25% of the casualties, and many of the adult male casualties are also non-combatants.  The casualty total continues to rise inexorably.

Logistics: There are few land crossings still open, Gaza's seaports and airport have been closed down, and even the makeshift tunnel network at Rafah has been destroyed. On days when the crossings are open at all, less than 80 truckloads enter the Gaza Strip, compared to about 750/day in more normal times.  Food items account for most of this, but they are insufficient to re-stock shelves after months of "siege". There is also a desperate shortage of many non-food items, such as construction materials and spare parts, both for immediate needs and for reconstruction or repair of vital infrastructure.

Nutrition: No wheat grain has been allowed into the Gaza Strip since the start of hostilities, resulting in the closure of all mills.  Only 10 bakeries remain fully operational, due to lack of flour and cooking gas.  Such limitations, plus the shortage of money to purchase bread and other staples, has greatly increased the reliance of 1.1 of Gaza's 1.5 million people on UNRWA, the World Food Program, and various NGOs, all of which distribute their limited food stocks when not interrupted by restrictions on supply and movement.  Such shortages can only worsen the nutritional deficiencies that have been accumulating for some time, resulting in widespread anemia, vitamin A deficiency and stunting.

Healthcare: Hospitals in the Gaza Strip are overwhelmed, due not just to recent casualties requiring urgent attention but also to the 18-month closure that has depleted most medicines, medical supplies, equipment, and spare parts, as well as cooking gas and basic food items.  Lacking external supply, hospitals and clinics are reliant on generators that are not meant to be used continuously and thus are nearing collapse. It is difficult for staff to reach the hospitals, and for ambulances to reach patients, but most hospitals and clinics remain open, except where there are nearby hostilities.

Sanitation: The sewage and water systems have been disrupted, especially in the northern cities of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya.  Both diesel fuel and chlorine, which are needed for the regional water and wastewater system, are both in perilously low supply.

Energy: The Gaza power plant has shut down for lack of fuel, and 15 electricity transformers were damaged or destroyed during the air strikes.  Almost all of the Gaza Strip lacks electrical supply, except for small generators that have been purchased for individual homes and institutions, but even these are subject to shutdown when fuel supplies are lacking.  Fuel for heating homes and cooking gas are no longer available on the market.  Most of the 240 gasoline stations in Gaza City have closed.

Telecommunications networks are down in most of the Gaza Strip, which means that telephones, television and computers are at best intermittently available. Except for the relatively few areas where electricity is still available, remaining means of communication depend on back-up generators that are gradually shutting down due to dwindling fuel stocks. For Gazans, this is a painful loss under the current circumstances, as it deprives them of their last link to the outside world.

Housing: An undetermined number of homes have been damaged or destroyed.  UNRWA has provided space in 5 emergency centers for hundreds of affected persons, but most people have nowhere to take refuge other than their own houses or shelters.  Those whose homes are unsafe or destroyed must double up with neighbors/relatives or in the available UNRWA emergency centers.

Transportation: Nowhere in the Gaza Strip is safe, and only a small number of medical cases are permitted to leave the Gaza Strip into Egypt. Movement on the streets is difficult, even for the few who still have fuel in their vehicles, and it is too risky to venture out for any purposes other than seeking food or emergency medical care.

Economy: The most immediate problem is a dearth of the Israeli currency that is used in Gaza.  Partly for this reason, UNRWA recently paid out only 50% of salaries to staff members and suspended cash payments to the 49,000 "special hardship" families as well as many suppliers/contractors. Of longer-term concern is that practically all businesses and farms have shut down due to shortage of supplies, lack of money, inability to move about, and absence of security. The unemployment rate remains at over 50% and the poverty rate at over 80%, creating an extraordinarily high rate of dependency.

With so many problems, what takes highest priority? Practically all Gazans join in the plea for an immediate ceasefire and free humanitarian access. They yearn simply for quiet, food security and a job, plus fundamental freedoms such as the right to travel and work outside the narrow confines of the Gaza Strip. A complete return to normal life after years of danger, deprivation and despair will take time and sustained commitment, but an important part of returning to a normal life for Gaza's families would be a cessation of hostilities and the restoration of their freedom to trade and travel.

As for eventual reconstruction, there is no estimate yet of what it will cost to rebuild Gaza's roads, bridges and housing even to the unacceptable levels that prevailed before the start of hostilities. Many public buildings, including police stations, government offices, and the national legislative building, have been destroyed, as have buildings serving schools and community associations that are needed for rebuilding Gaza's shattered society.

Much more difficult to assess are factors such as lost weeks of schooling, disruption of health care, and the psychosocial trauma experienced by children who are forced to spend days on end huddled together in cramped, darkened households, without electricity or proper heating, anxious about food supplies, with nowhere to turn for safety, and with the sounds of aircraft and artillery ringing in their ears.


Thomas Neu, Executive Director, Friends of UNRWA Association