Gaza, Today and Tomorrow: Current Challenges and Future Prospects
Video and Edited Transcript Dr. Ilana Feldman & Mathew Reynolds Transcript No. 438 (29 July 2015)
Hello and welcome to The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. My name is Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley, and I am currently interning here at the Palestine Center. Today’s event, “Gaza, Today and Tomorrow: Current Challenges and Future Prospects” is the second part of our three part summer intern lecture series entitled, “Gaza in Perspective: Realities on the Ground, Representation, and Broader Implications.”
Last week, for the first panel in the series, we were fortunate to hear from Dr. Yousef Munayyer and Dr. Nathan Brown on Gaza’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Next week, Wednesday, August 5th we will have our final panel. Dr. Edmund Ghareeb and Omar Baddar will analyze American coverage of the 2014 Gaza war across different media outlets. We hope that you will join us.
A year ago, around this time, most of us in this room were closely following the news coming from Gaza, The West Bank, and Israel. We were waiting to hear about the next location that bombs were dropped, to read the next report of civilian casualties, and to see the next batch of images of violence and destruction. As the third war to hit Gaza in the last seven years, Operation Protective Edge killed and displaced thousands and left millions of dollars of damage. This conflict has put a tremendous burden on Gaza’s economy, infrastructure, and civilians’ livelihoods.
Our panelists today will examine the realities in Gaza after the war, and look at what the future of reconstruction and rehabilitation will consist of. They will offer their own analysis of the current situation, and look at the prospects for progress in a war-torn land.
I am pleased to introduce our two speakers for today:
Ilana Feldman is Associate Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67; In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care; and the forthcoming book Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule. Her current project traces the Palestinian experience with humanitarianism in the years since 1948, exploring both how this aid apparatus has shaped Palestinian social and political life and how the Palestinian experience has influenced the broader post-war humanitarian regime.
Matthew Reynolds is currently a Washington representative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Prior to this he served in the State Department as the Director of House Affairs which he joined in 2003. He has held numerous positions in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, including serving as Staff Director of the House Rules Committee, guiding legislation on the House Floor, as professional staff on the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Each speaker will have 15 minutes to talk which will be followed by some time for questions from the audience. As one last quick reminder before we begin, if you have a cell phone please silence them now. Now please help me in welcoming Dr. Ilana Feldman.
Thank you very much, and thank you for inviting me here today. Before I start, I’ll say a little bit about what I am going to talk about, or the perspective that I bring to bear in this. As Nicholas mentioned, I am an anthropologist. I have worked on Gaza, but I am working now on the Palestinian experience with humanitarianism more broadly. I come to thinking about the situation in Gaza last year and today, less from the perspective of being on the ground there, and I have not been. Matthew Reynolds will able to talk more precisely about conditions on the ground.
I am coming more from the perspective of long term engagement with Palestine, but also thinking about how we think about the situation, how it’s framed. How it is framed for us as observers, for the various actors. I’m bringing to my analysis of Gaza some of the insights that I have gleaned from research on the humanitarian condition of Palestinians over a 65-year period.
The Gaza strip is the product of catastrophe. First, was the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948 out of which the entity itself was constituted. What had been one district in Palestine became the Gaza strip at this moment. Its borders, 28 miles long and six miles across at its widest point, were and are provisionally defined in the armistice agreement signed between Israel and Egypt in 1949. Two-thirds of its residents are refugees displaced from their villages in other parts of Palestine, most close to Gaza and some within sight of it. They have lived generations now in displacement just a few miles from their homes and villages, and their movements within and beyond Gaza’s borders have been subject to the whims of occupying and neighboring powers.
Even as the 1948 Nakba is the founding catastrophe of Gaza, it is one among many that have shaped this place. These events include the 1956 Suez war and the four-month Israeli occupation of Gaza that accompanied it, the 1967 war and the subsequent continuing occupation of Gaza along with the West Bank and the Golan, and the 2009, 2012, and 2014 assaults on the territory. Each of these events, and others, have further constituted Gaza’s borders and boundaries through the placement of UN peacekeepers along the border, the seizure of land for settlement building, and the creation of security zones inside the strip. They have also reshaped its population through the expulsion of people to the Sinai, and the encouragement of emigration to Jordan and beyond. They have reconfigured its systems of governance and its economic connections.
The way in which Gaza is a product of repeated catastrophe is evident. It is also the product of what anthropologist, Beth Povinelli calls “cruddy conditions.” Povinelli specifically contrasts suffering that is catastrophic, crisis-laden, and sublime (this is the suffering of the immediacy of war) with that which is ordinary, chronic, and cruddy. The Palestinian experience generally, and the Gazan one quite acutely, has been shaped by a movement between these two states, between catastrophe and the cruddy, between catastrophe and the chronic. The emergency circumstances produced by each crisis are soon thereafter transformed into chronic conditions of need and restriction. Poverty, precarity, the regular rhythms of immobility, of confinement in place, are all part of the pallet of Gaza’s chronic condition. The specific circumstances of Palestinian vulnerability are joined by conditions of economic, social, and political precarity that resonate globally.
This sort of suffering, which often persists below the threshold of an event that Povinelli calls “cruddy,” the ways that the catastrophic and cruddy come together in the Gazan experience are made tragically clear, frequently. It was made clear in the sinking last fall, which people may remember, of a boat filled with many escaping Gazans. A migrant smuggling boat filled with approximately 500 people was rammed by smugglers when the captain refused an order to transfer the passengers into a much smaller boat that he said would sink under their weight. Most on board, including the captain, drowned when the boat sank. According to a report from The Guardian perhaps as many as 200 of the 500 on board were from Gaza. Also on board were Palestinians from the Yarmouk camp in Syria.
The fact of impoverished people paying large sums of money to smugglers and taking significant risks with their lives in the hopes of reaching a place with more opportunity is, horribly, a quite regular feature of our unequal world. The language in which this was reported as the sinking of a migrant boat locates this event in the realm of global precarity. Yet, it is a relatively new part of the Gazan experience. The tunnels, that for many years of the blockade on Gaza helped sustain its economic life, are now being put to use in ferrying people, mostly young men, out of Gaza and into a network of smugglers. This phenomenon is a product both of the continued degradation of the quality of life in Gaza, squeezed by economic blockade and suffering, repeated material destruction, and the increasing immobility of the population. In earlier periods of economic difficulty more Gazans had outlets for legal travel for work abroad.
Grinding poverty, a sense of futility about the future, and the promise that things could, and could only, be better elsewhere are global conditions of chronic suffering. In Gaza they are the direct outcomes of Israeli policy, Egyptian complicity, and international indifference. The catastrophic and the cruddy are clearly not opposite or unconnected categories, but they do constitute distinct registers of suffering and of experience and they can demand different mechanisms of humanitarian response. I want to think about the ways in which humanitarians deal with these two different kinds of registers.
Actually, it is cruddy or chronic conditions that in some ways pose more acute, or more persistent, challenges for humanitarian actors. In general, one of the things that distinguishes humanitarianism as a form of, most often, international intervention, is that it is crisis driven and reactive. Its primary aim is to save lives, rather than to improve them. The humanitarian space that humanitarian actors often speak about describes not only the means to provide assistance and remove people from harm, whether that is through humanitarian corridors, refugee camps, or the recognition of symbols like The Red Cross as protected, but humanitarian space also refers to the temporary spaces and the forms of existence that constitute survival mode in the midst of crisis.
This is the primary arena, or the first arena, of humanitarian action, and humanitarians hope that all of these things conditions of humanitarian spaces the need for them will be short lasting. Yet in fact, in many instances, and the Palestinian case is only the longest example of a widespread phenomenon, humanitarian presence is needed over the long term. It is needed both to provide assistance and to serve as a mechanism of protection. People in need, relatively quickly, come to live, not just survive in humanitarian spaces and as they give birth, grow up, get old and even die from non-humanitarian causes, the requirements for humanitarian assistance change. Humanitarian practice has to shift from disaster relief, things like the provision of food, clothing, and emergency shelter, to efforts that look more like social service work and development projects.
One of the things that I have been discovering in my own research is the effect on humanitarian identity and humanitarian workers of this shift from the crisis to the chronic. One effect has been an uncertainty of purpose. I remarked once to an employee of UNRWA, which has been described the UN agency with primary responsibility for providing assistance to Palestinian refugees, on what seemed like a fundamental uncertainty of purpose in humanitarian work in the long term. This is something that I have seen in my field work across the Middle East with Palestinian refugees. People are living in conditions of chronic poverty. It is not always clear what one can do when one does humanitarian work.
When I mentioned this to an UNRWA employ she nodded vigorously in agreement and said, “Yes, it is an emergency.” Such as after the Lebanese destruction of Nahr Il Barid camp in Lebanon, or Israeli attacks on Gaza. “When staff are energized and mobilized,” and she didn’t mean that the people were happy with these crises, “people know what to do. That gives you a purpose.” Humanitarian actors cannot alleviate the causes of people’s suffering. Yet, in crisis they can often affect a change in the circumstance in which those people are living. In the chronic conditions usually facing Palestinians it often seems that humanitarian actors cannot even do that. In the case of Gaza, this has been very evident over the past year, even in conditions of crisis the humanitarian ability to respond is severely restrained by Israeli restrictions and international acquiescence.
The transition from crisis circumstances to chronic circumstances is frequently not linear. I think you see this evidently in the Palestinian case where long periods of chronic poverty, marginalization, and political stasis are repeatedly punctuated by times of acute crisis. So part of the challenge that humanitarian actors in Gaza face is being buffeted between the catastrophic and the cruddy and trying to respond alternatively to both situations. Now one consequence of the repeated assaults on Gaza for humanitarian organizations is the necessity of repeatedly rebuilding the same projects. Although donor countries, most notably the U.S. have not always seemed particularly concerned about this tremendous waste, there are some suggestions that maybe a limit is being reached. Humanitarian actors on the ground most certainly are. And other observers also increasingly call attention to the obscenity of this repeated building. So humanitarian actors may be mobilized by emergency, they understand better how to act when faced with a crisis, but they suffer the losses of these cycles of destruction.
This is the humanitarian “double-condition” produced by the returned and ever returning crisis. You have both a renewed clarity of purpose, along with a growing sense of being trapped in a cycle of futility (turns to Reynolds). So I think that when Matthew Reynolds speaks, he will be able to describe in much greater detail the consequences of these kinds of destruction in Gaza, both for Gazans and humanitarian actors. And even though there is tremendous need for humanitarian assistance, as humanitarian actors insist, the humanitarian framework cannot be a sufficient response to conditions in Gaza.
In order to break out of this cycle, it is vital to see a political resolution. So what I want to focus on in my remaining time, is not as much the inadequacy or the necessity–I will assume both of them–but rather to explore the ways that the movement between the catastrophic and the cruddy and the forms of isolation that go along with it have been Israeli strategies of control in Gaza. I think this is one reason why breaking out of the cycle has been so difficult–that it has suited Israel. So degraded expectations are part of a process and practice of isolating Gaza.
Alongside the three assaults that Israelis have launched on the strip in the last seven years–two involving a significant ground invasion and all involving massive destruction–Israel has imposed a devastating siege and blockade on Gaza in the past eight years, in response first to the Hamas victory and parliamentary elections and then its takeover of the Gaza Strip the following year. And it has also imposed a constraining closure regime for the past 25 years, beginning during the first intifada and intensifying during the Oslo years so these policies of isolation have harmed individuals, impeding their ability to live full lives and have also impaired Palestinian political communities creating distance, distrust, and ultimately division between the West Bank and Gaza.
So it is the chronic conditions of isolation as much as the catastrophic destruction that is harmful. Israeli military strategists refer to the practice of the periodic targeting of Gaza as “mowing the lawn.” As Efraim Inbar described it in The Jerusalem Post, “Israel simply needs to mow the grass once in a while to degrade the enemy’s capabilities; keeping the enemy off balance and reducing its capabilities requires Israeli military readiness and a willingness to use force intermittently. Israeli defense on the strategy focuses on Hamas as the target with the effect on Palestinian society relegated to collateral damage. But as Rabani and others have pointed out, the real targets of these assaults are the Palestinian population and Palestinian society. Though the term “mowing the lawn” perhaps suggests that the grass is allowed to grow freely in between mowings, it doesn’t truly capture the nature of this policy.
Assaults are paired with the isolation practices that restrict life in Gaza in the lulls between attacks. And the regular assaults result not only in catastrophic losses of life and damaged infrastructure, they produce a degradation of the underlying normal. When the smoke clears from each assault, conditions of life in Gaza return to an everyday that is somewhat worse than what was before. This process–as it is intended to, it seems–interrupts political engagement, economic activity, and social life. And it transforms people’s expectations for the future and everyone assumes, knows perhaps, that another attack will come. So a policy of oscillation between crisis and precarity relies not only on military weapons but also on turning other forms of intervention into weaponry.
And humanitarianism has been a crucial tool in this arsenal. Israeli strategy since the Hamas takeover of the strip has been to produce a humanitarian problem, generally kept shy of a humanitarian crisis, as way of managing a political problem. So part of the strategy is about framing. Defining the Palestinian problem as humanitarian rather than political in effort to detract from the Palestinian pursuit of political aims. And part of the strategy is technocratic and policy oriented: to control and constrain conditions of life to the extent that there will be a perpetual humanitarian problem in Gaza. And this is restriction not only on construction materials and other objects, but also food sources.
I expect that many in this audience will be familiar with the infamous Israeli military red lines document, which described policies that were enacted from 2007 to 2010 which identified the precise number of calories required to keep the Gaza population “at a level just above the UN definition of hunger.” And it outlined what goods should be allowed into Gaza to keep available calories to this limit. But this weaponized deployment of humanitarianism is one means through which Gaza’s condition is moved from catastrophe to precarity, and back again. This consign of Gaza to relief has been part of a double pronged strategy whereby development is pursued in the West Bank in an effort to foster an economic peace in lieu of a political resolution that itself has roots in older policies in de-development that Sarah Roy has described.
The humanitarian actors have long protested the severe restrictions imposed on their ability to bring needed goods into Gaza. In the lead-up to an international donor conference last October, Oxfam warned that the money pledged will languish in bank accounts for decades before it reaches people unless long-standing Israeli restrictions on imports are lifted. And it suggested that it might be more than 50 years before things could be rebuilt. Now a year after the destruction, almost no reconstruction has been accomplished. As reported in The Guardian, in the aftermath of last summer’s assault, some humanitarian actors complained not only about constraint on their work, but about a new monitoring regime that risked putting the UN in charge of the continuing Israeli occupation. And in that way, humanitarianism and humanitarian actors could be utilized as weapons against Palestinians.
I also want to note another aspect of what I think about as the humanitarian problem, one which is also connected to the oscillation between the catastrophic and the precarious that has been Gaza’s experience. With crisis, the watchword for humanitarian intervention, anything less including the chronic and cruddy suffering that has been endemic may have difficulty capturing the public’s humanitarian imagination. Israel has sometimes worked to take discursive advantage of this tension in humanitarian definition by suggesting that the fact that there is not only abject suffering in Gaza is evidence that there is not humanitarian need.
Palestinian refugees, wherever they live, confront these challenges as they struggle to make their claims for restitution and redress on an international stage. One of the reasons that refugee camps have so much symbolic importance to Palestinians is the connection between suffering and claim making. Palestinians worry that if they are not perceived as being in abject need that their claims will get no hearing. Yet, their fundamental claims are not for aid, though such aid is sometimes desperately needed, but for justice. The humanitarian frame and the definition of the humanitarian situation that comes with it can get in the way of these claims. This is part of the double bind of humanitarianism for Palestinians, one that has been particularly acute in Gaza. Humanitarian need has seemed to be the best way to get attention for their condition, but with crisis as its ground and aid as its answer, humanitarianism is profoundly limited in its capacity to solve Gaza’s problem.
Humanitarians know this, of course, and they increasingly seeking ways not only to call attention to humanitarian need in Gaza, there is a glaring call for donations, but also to call attention to those limits. They continue to worry about the effects of their work. Just a few weeks ago Jason Cone, the executive director of Doctors without Borders in the U.S., wrote, “For now we will continue stitching up the physical and psychological wounds of Palestinians knowing that another war with Israel may not be far off and that a great many people already need assistance right now. This is our role, one constantly questioned by our medical teams on the ground whose members are always struggling to see the invisible line between complicity with the occupation and a refusal not to ignore its consequences. Ultimately, our humanitarian action has been consistently justified as a response to the needs of Palestinians trapped by this endless war. As has been the case for the past fifteen years, our presence is our protest in the face of an occupation that has taken on a near permanent character.”
As UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies put it, launching the “Freedom for Gaza” campaign in advance of last October’s donor conference, aid is not a substitute for human rights. While pledging billions for reconstruction, let us remember that the denial of freedom can never lead to lasting peace. The people of Gaza must have freedom of movement, freedom of access, freedom to trade, freedom from aid dependency, and freedom from the fear of death and destruction. Palestinians are being denied a future. That future must be restored. There is no lasting solution without lifting the blockade. Never again, enough is enough.
And I will conclude by noting that as important as it is to lift the blockade on Gaza, and it is extremely important, this is only one thing that is needed. The closure policy which preceded the blockade, and which separated the West Bank from Gaza, needs to be reversed. The occupation needs to really end, not just be pursued from the border and the air. And ultimately, the events and consequences of 1948 need to be faced head-on and a just resolution pursued. Thank you very much.
Thank you, and good afternoon. I’d like to thank the Jerusalem Fund for allowing UNRWA to participate today, and I’d like to thank Dr. Feldman for her comments and setting the scene. I’m going to start a couple of things. First, I’m going to assume a lot of knowledge on the Middle East and of Gaza. But I always start with a little, quick “UNRWA 101,” because there’s a lot of things people know about UNRWA and a lot of things people think they know about UNRWA that aren’t actually accurate.
So let me tell you, first, we were established in 1949. We’re a unique kind of agency, and we have a very, very significant footprint. People forget that in many places, we are the mother and father of the Palestinian refugees. We operate in five fields: Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza, [and Jordan]. We have two million registered refugees in Jordan, 1.8 million in Gaza, 850,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 525,000 in Syria, though the number is fluctuating a little, and 450,000 in Lebanon.
UNRWA, unlike other UN refugee agencies, most notably UNHCR, does not have a political mandate. We are simply a humanitarian and human development agency. And it does constraint what we can do and say. You also may want to appreciate now that 29 percent of all refugees live in 58 official camps. That’s only 29 percent. And UNRWA does not administer those camps or control those camps, but we do provide services. One of the largest services that we provide is education. UNRWA operates 700 schools, and we educate 1.5 million students. Put that in American perspective; let’s parachute UNRWA into the United States. We would be the third largest school system: New York, Los Angeles, UNRWA, and then Puerto Rico. We provide health services in 183 clinics and we provide 12 million patient visits per year. [We provide] relief and social services, basically food and nutrition aid, camp improvement and shelter rehabilitation, rebuilding places like Nahr Il Bared, and providing clean water and sewage in other camps. We provide micro finances as a globally recognized microfinance program. And UNRWA provides, and this is where we have a little bit of a political mandate, protection and advocacy on numerous issues. We have issues like the blockade in Gaza, we have barriers and demolitions in the West Bank, and we have employment and civil rights issues in places like Lebanon. We are under tremendous financial stress. UNRWA, right now, is 100 million dollars in deficit, and it’s really going to question whether or not we will fulfill the mandates that we have by the end of the year.
Spending for refugees in 1975 was about 200 dollars per head. Today, it’s less than ten. And we’re a little different, because UNRWA is a direct service provider, unlike most other agencies, like… the U.S. government and USAID, which contract out to and NGO or CARE or Mercy Corps. UNRWA does it directly. The teachers in the schools are UNRWA employees and the doctors are UNRWA employees. We have a staff of about 300,000 people. All but 150 are Palestinian refugees themselves.
And I want to take this opportunity to thank [you]… for your generous contributions. The United States is the largest donor to UNRWA, providing the most of any supporter, and that’s very important. And I’d also like to point out that not only is America’s financial support important, but so is its political support. There are a lot of people who sometimes go after UNRWA in the political scene, [with] special interests here in the US. And I always ask, if we are as bad and horrible as some claim, why is it that the United States government, with its entire operations, State Department, intelligence , and so on, strongly supports us?
Sadly, we are facing crises in all five of our fields, and I don’t want to ignore or deflate those other areas. But today’s focus is Gaza. And let me just give you a little snapshot of Gaza, because most Americans have not been there. I was there just a couple of months ago, and I can tell you sadly it’s not improving. But Gaza, as Dr. Feldman pointed out, is 139 square miles, but that’s before the security zone [was established]. You can see there’s security zone [on this map], and if you go into that zone. you’re liable to be shot.
So take that, and compact it more. [Gaza] is about twice the size of Washington, DC, about three times the size of downtown San Francisco, or about equal to Detroit. And given UNRWA’s finances, I think we’re about in the same boat as Detroit. Gaza’s about the length of a marathon run, and that’s about the distance from the “Mixing Bowl” to Laurel, Maryland. And its width is the distance from Georgetown to Capitol Hill; most of us can walk that within an hour or so.
Gaza, as you know, has 1.8 million people, which would make it the fifth largest U.S. city, in between Houston and Philadelphia. And of those [1.8 million] people, 1.2 are refugees. And UNRWA is essentially the pseudo-government in Gaza, providing services to all those individuals. Eighteen percent of Gaza’s GDP is the result of UNRWA. We are the employer of first choice.
In Gaza, in the education system, we only educate grades one through nine. It’s a historical anomaly, but we do grades one through nine in Gaza, as well as places like the West Bank, and so on. This school population is a quarter of a million. That’s the size of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a bit larger than Houston, and it’s 1.5 times larger than Fairfax County, and you know that’s the thirteenth largest in the United States. [It’s] twice [the size of] Montgomery County, [and] twice the size of Prince George’s County, so it’s a very, very large school system. And again, that’s because Gaza has one of the highest population densities.
Now already before the war, this last war was probably the worst that we’ve ever seen in Gaza. There was already a disaster. Ninety percent of the water is not potable. I stayed at a place called Al Deera Hotel, which is right in Gaza City. You take a shower, and the water’s brine. They claim it’s potable, but you certainly don’t want to drink it, and you certainly don’t always want to bathe in it. The water underneath Gaza will probably be unusable and destroyed by 2020. Twenty-five percent of the wastewater is untreated.
For Israelis and others who want to ignore this, whether you’re Israeli or Egyptian, that wastewater is going into the Mediterranean in both directions. So, I would be wary about using the beaches in Ashkelon in the future. And there is no reliable electricity. Maybe about eight hours a day, but only about 45 percent of the demand is met.
As Dr. Feldman described, Gaza is in a stage of real “de-development.” Prior to the last couple of years, it was essentially a middle, modern country. If you look back at 2000, UNRWA was providing about 80,000 people with food aid. Today, we are providing one million people with food aid. And this is simply and purely the result of a man-made disaster, and it’s called the blockade. And the war made it even worse. And it’s not just an economic tragedy. You have a social unraveling as well, particularly in a male dominated society. As the men in the household are no longer able to work and provide for the families, and are instead humiliated in a food line waiting to pick up food from UNRWA, that translated home to a lot of domestic violence, a lot more friction, and a lot more trouble. Sadly, we’re kind of playing “Groundhog Day,” the movie, after this war. Nothing has really changed. It’s only gotten the same or a little bit worse.
I was in Gaza in September, shortly after the war ended, for the opening of UNRWA’s schools. We were delayed a couple of weeks, but we were able to open the schools in September. And I compared it to just a month-and-a-half ago while I was in Gaza. The difference is that everything’s still pretty much destroyed, except the rubble has been cleared off the streets. There have been clean-up campaigns paid for the by the UNDP. Small repairs have been made, and UNRWA has provided a lot of resources for small repairs; for instance, a place with a whole in the wall now has cinderblocks covering it. But if your entire building was collapsed and “pancaked-down,” that’s still “pancaked” onto the ground.
So you really haven’t had any change. There’s still hope. I remember when I arrived after the war, there was kind of an optimism, a hope that “thank goodness the war is over, thank goodness we can go outside.” But then there was a growing concern of “things don’t change” and “we’re going to have another war at some point.” And I’m afraid that is unfortunately still the case. During the war, and I recall being here last year speaking about this, no one anywhere in Gaza was safe. You may recall we sheltered 290,000 people in 190 schools. Seven of them were hit, where 44 civilians were killed, and over 200 hundred injured. In theory, they’re being investigated, and I hope that some changes are made in the future, because these are well-known safe-haven sights. I appreciate that things happen during a war, but more care needs to be taken. I’d also like to point out that, during that time, I have to give a shout-out to my colleagues in UNRWA and our colleagues in Gaza, eleven of whom died during the conflict, and their commitment to the refugees, despite the fact that there was fighting every day. They were still providing food assistance, providing health-care, and opening up schools for shelters.
The destruction this time in Gaza was, as I said, everywhere and very widespread. And it’s almost a revenge and retribution. One-half of the poultry stock was destroyed. I’m not so sure if it was the roosters they were after, or the hens they were after. I’m not sure if the rooster is the terrorist or the hen is the terrorist. Maybe it’s a combination.
But why destroy all the poultry stock? You look at the factories that were destroyed. The famous one that was on “60 Minutes” was an ice cream factory. I don’t know what the military value of an ice cream factory is, and it wasn’t a security threat, because the individual who owns it and goes back and forth is one of the few Palestinian businessmen who has a permit to go through Eretz and go back and forth between the West Bank and Gaza!
Today, there are some 100,000 people still homeless in Gaza. As I said, the construction mechanism really hasn’t taken effect. Small repairs have occurred, but major ones have not, despite the fact that we’ve already distributed 113 million dollars in repairs. We still have 51,000 families eligible for repairs, but we don’t have the resources, and there isn’t the material.
I would make a big distinction, though, in the reconstruction in Gaza. There are two separate things happening: there’s the reconstruction mechanism, which are the individuals going through a system that was worked out between the Israelis and the Palestinians for reconstruction, and then there’s the actual UN projects. While the reconstruction mechanism has slowed down and has issues, our reconstruction projects continue. We’ve had a long-term relationship with the Israelis for over ten years, and we are able to bring in materials and so on, but those aren’t building small houses for people. They’re building new schools or fixing a clinic.
And despite much of the recent touting of an easing of the blockade, they are now told that there is an average of 700 trucks a month coming in and out of Gaza. And there’s a doubling of the exports. So, instead of one truck of strawberries getting exported, you now get two. It’s important to also note that a significant amount of the exports going out are what we term as “plastic crates.” Those are the things that Coca-Cola and bottled water come in. Those crates get returned to the Israeli distributorship, but that’s not really an export. It’s just a return of your plastic crate.
So, I would posit to you: imagine in Washington, D.C., surviving off of 700 trucks a month. Now, a large distribution center in the United States would get about 833 trucks a month. That’s just the distribution for say, Giant or Kmart. And remember that Gaza is two to three times the size of Washington, D.C. And I’m only referencing one store, Giant! Tel Aviv itself is smaller than Gaza, and I’m sure they get more than 700 trucks a week. We always should be careful when we read in the paper of “great increases,” and put them in perspective.
The thing that Gaza needs the most, as Dr. Feldman replied to, really, is the need for easing or eliminating the blockade. It’s not so much the imports — it is true, you can find pretty much anything you need in Gaza. I can go to the store and I can find nice shampoo. The problem is that no one in Gaza can afford it. And what they need are the exports. Gaza’s a very productive place. It had great textile factories, and a couple of them are still surviving. [There is] furniture [manufacturing], and certainly agriculture. And that, again, is what’s needed to stimulate the economy and stimulate the people.
The current situation is unsustainable. I think the difference that I would point out between May and last September would be that there is still optimism in Gaza, and there’s still a vibrancy on the part of the Palestinians and refugees living in Gaza to make it, and to survive, and to have a better future for themselves and their families. But for the first time ever, we are seeing people from Gaza try to flee, as Dr. Feldman referred to, on these rickety, horrible boats and paying human traffickers to go through the Sinai and into Libya, and dying on the Mediterranean Sea. That’s a signal that people have given up hope. And when you live in an open-air prison, there is no travel. There are a few people who get permits through Erez, and Rafah has been opened, but by and large, people are stuck in Gaza.
So it’s sad that we start to find that some of that resilience is still there, which is great, but unfortunately we’re also starting to see people give up that hope, and that doesn’t bode well for a future either. As I pointed out, the salvation is really a political solution. The challenges and the problems of Gaza are manmade. There’s no tsunami that hit Gaza. There’s no earthquake like Port-au-Prince. There’s no ebola in Gaza. It’s a political, human tragedy and the answer to that is a political solution.
Now, as I mentioned, we’re a humanitarian organization, so I can’t get too much into the political here, but a personal observation is that both sides are to blame. There are obstacles to reconstruction, and a lot of them are within Palestinian society itself – Hamas vs. the PA vs. others. You have to get your act together if you want things to happen. And reconstruction can happen. Israel definitely has legitimate security needs, but a mechanism is in place. There just need to be political will to pursue it. And similarly, there doesn’t appear at this time to be any effort in Israeli political circles to address this humanitarian crisis either. It’s been very short-sided on both sides, and the people who suffer from it are the civilians in Gaza. This has been unresolved for 65 years, and it’s a festering wound. We should all remember, you can’t defy science. If you leave the wound to fester, it only gets worse with infection and disease. If you treat the wound with care and responsibility, you will end up with a much more successful ending.
So, it’s a two way street, and both parties need to come together. The Israelis do have legitimate concerns, and we certainly condemn the rockets. There’s no excuse to fire rockets and civilians, and similarly there really isn’t an excuse for bombing a UN safe shelter, either.
UNRWA will continue to provide the services that it does. Hopefully, we’ll have some saviors in the next couple of months with our hundred million dollar deficit. And I know the United States has been there and the EU is there, too! At this point, I’d rather have a dialogue than me lecturing about Gaza, so I look forward to your questions and answers. Thank you.
Ilana Feldman is Associate Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-67 (Duke University Press, 2008); In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care (Duke University, 2010; co-edited with Miriam Ticktin); and Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule (forthcoming from Stanford University Press, 2015). Her current project traces the Palestinian experience with humanitarianism in the years since 1948, exploring both how this aid apparatus has shaped Palestinian social and political life and how the Palestinian experience has influenced the broader post-war humanitarian regime.
Matthew A. Reynolds is currently a Washington representative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Prior to this he served in the State Department as the Director of House Affairs which he joined in 2003.He has held numerous positions in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, including serving as Staff Director of the House Rules Committee, guiding legislation on the House Floor, as professional staff on the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.