"Each time I go to Gaza, things are worse than before"

Photo: The Erez Crossing in 1964

MAP trustee Andrew Karney writes on his recent visit to Gaza:

I worked as a teacher for UNRWA in the newly established Vocational Training Centre in Gaza in the early 1960s, before Israel’s 1967 occupation began and when Gaza was administered by the Egyptians.  This was the only place of tertiary education at that time – now there are several universities providing quality education to many people. 

Then it was relatively peaceful and tranquil, with people enjoying the beaches and the clean blue sea.  Gaza was then exporting its sweet juicy oranges from the beach using small boats to take the fruit to larger ones.  Of course life in the camps was pretty hard then with many having no proper water or sewerage services but then they were not as crowded as now.  The United Nations Emergency Force was there with about 5,000 troops and things were quiet.  The population was around 400,000 of which about half were registered refugees, today it’s about 2 million.

I have been back to Gaza many times since. Each time I go there things are worse than before, with a brief exception in the mid 1990’s shortly after the Oslo accords, when there were new housing programmes in Beit Lahia and refurbishment of Palestine Square.

Orange exports from Gaza Beach in 1964Orange exports from Gaza beach in 1964

Healthcare emergency

When I visited in 2015, I saw the terrible damage resulting from the 2014 war and in particular the destruction of Al Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital at Shujaiya.  There was rubble everywhere and people sheltering in schools, shipping containers, and bombed out buildings. 

During this recent trip I saw some things which were encouraging and many that were really difficult to imagine.  The sea is now very polluted, as the power outages mean that untreated sewage flows directly into the sea and swimming poses a serious health hazard.

I visited Al Shifa hospital and saw three of the projects that MAP has supported.  I am not a medic so I write this with only the knowledge of an amateur. 

MAP’s work on sterilisation has reduced many of the problems of infection which I believe are an issue in most hospitals. Gaza’s hospital staff have encountered an unusual issue though.  The water in Gaza is brackish as a result of many of the wadis that used to flow though Gaza from Israel to the sea having been drained dry to satisfy the needs of Israeli farmers.  This meant that some of the stainless steel instruments were becoming slightly rusty.  Now they have desalination equipment to use before the sterilisation itself.

MAP, together with our partner organisation IDEALS and with the support of UK Department for International Development, has established a limb reconstruction unit which has been able to help more than 125 patients with complex limb injuries to date that might otherwise have had to suffer terrible incapacity or worse.  The surgeons and other staff, some of whom went for training in the UK and others trained in Gaza, were fulsome in their praise of the support that MAP has provided.

I also visited the neonatal unit where, once again, the staff praised the help that MAP has provided.  This work has contributed to a drop in the mortality rate, though there is still terrible overcrowding and sometimes four tiny babies in one incubator.  The power outages, that are a current curse in Gaza, really do create problems for this facility despite the generators that the hospitals have.  It seems that the occurrence of premature delivery in Gaza is more common than elsewhere, perhaps due to the stress that the mothers are under as a result of the blockade and the associated shortages.  Medical staff also report that the number of congenital deformities is higher than usual.  This could possibly, in part, be as a result of the heavy metals such as depleted uranium used in some shells and bombs that have rained down on Gaza, though of course it’s hard to establish a direct connection.

The extreme challenges Gaza’s healthcare system is now experiencing, and the direct threat they pose to the lives of patients, particularly new-borns, are part of the reason why MAP has declared a humanitarian emergency there.

Ingenuity in crisis

The power shortages in Gaza as a result of lack of fuel to the single operating power plant generator are acute, with mains power generally supplied for only a few hours a day.  However, as so often, Palestinians in Gaza apply their considerable ingenuity in incredibly difficult circumstances.  Some have fans that contain batteries in their bases that enable them to operate when there is no power and also contain chargers for mobile phones etc.  But one thing really surprised me.  The normal supply to a residential dwelling is 32 amps and in some buildings this is provided for just the 2 – 4 hours; but for the remainder of the time some people are able to receive 2 amps meaning that they can at least have limited lighting.  If they exceed this amount then the power shuts down till they reduce the load.  Speaking as an electrical engineer, this is quite a clever thing to do with the established electricity infrastructure in a crisis, though clearly not enough for other essential needs like washing clothes or refrigerating food. 

I also visited the Qatari-funded Hamad City built on the land that was once the Gush Katif Israeli settlement block with its tomato greenhouses.  The first and second phase of this project are now complete providing around 23,000 affordable good quality flats along with schools, playgrounds, shops and a new mosque.  I was able to visit some of the flats and talk to the residents, some of whom had been resettled from destroyed buildings. 

Nevertheless an estimated 40,000 people remain internally displaced after their homes were damaged or destroyed three years ago. Hopefully international support will find solutions for these families too.

I visited many friends during the visit to celebrate the Eid al Adha.  The hardships they suffer from the blockade, the lack of drinkable water and the shortage of electricity never seem to dampen the celebrations at this time of year.  They are the most resilient and resourceful of people.

 

Andrew Karney

September 2017