Gaza Triage: Humanitarian Crisis and Response with Samer Badawi
Edited Transcript of
Remarks by Samer Badawi
Transcript No. 306 (12 January 2009)
Speaking at a 7 January 2009 Palestine Center briefing, Samer Badawi, executive director of United Palestinian Appeal, detailed the dire humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip which have been exacerbated by Israel's military offensive.
To view the video of this briefing online, go to http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/3585
7 January 2009
Thank you, Samar, for the introduction. Before we begin with anything, I'd like to take a moment of silence for the now close to 700 people who've been slaughtered in Gaza.
Perhaps, the word slaughtered seems a bit jarring to people in this room. But I would venture to guess that after this latest escapade of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] in the occupied territories of Palestine that the cat is finally out of the bag, and that here in the United States we're witnessing for the first time in my lifetime an opportunity to finally push not only for a corridor of humanitarian assistance to Palestine, not only for an end to the siege but for an end to the occupation. Today, I hope to begin by giving you a brief update on what's happening on the humanitarian issue. It's very difficult to ascertain the latest, but I've taken some time to gather some facts and figures for you. Then, I'd like to talk to you about what we've been doing at UPA [United Palestinian Appeal] and to let you know, to assure you that although many of us in this room are waiting for the siege to end--and we have been made to believe that nothing can be done until that has happened--that there is actually much that can be done right now by everybody in this room should you choose to do it. I'll tell you a little bit about what we're doing at UPA, and then we will begin to think about the strategy of what comes next, not only in terms of the humanitarian issues that will need to be addressed, which will be enormous and on a scale we have never witnessed before in Palestine once the shooting stops, but also to think about a strategy for finally and ultimately ending the occupation.
So, let's begin with the latest from the ground. As I'm sure you know at this point, we're talking about fatalities upwards of 640 people, 40 plus of whom were massacred at a U.N. school just yesterday, a school that was clearly marked; the GPS coordinates of which were given to the IDF. And to this day, to this moment, we're hearing excuses and rationale for the mortaring and the shelling of the school with innocent families, civilians and children in it. We're hearing that 30 percent of the fatalities at this point were women and children. And as many of you in this room may know as well, there's been some dispute as to where that figure comes from, whether or not you count policemen who were murdered on the first day of the strikes as civilians or you count them as Hamas fighters. That's an open question. It remains to be seen. But I urge you to take that figure of 30 percent with a grain of salt. We're hearing now of 2,800 people injured, 45 percent of whom everybody acknowledges are women and children. In addition to that, we know now that at least eleven ambulances, eleven medical supply and relief vehicles have been bombed or have been damaged by what is being called collateral damage from Israeli bombings. I should say as a side note that three of those were mobile clinics that were from the Union of Health Care Committees, which is an organization based in Nablus. And those mobile clinics are actually funded by UPA. So, it raises serious questions for us as a charity as to what we are doing in Palestine and what our proper role should be--something we'll get to in the end.
In terms of the aid that is able to get into Gaza, we have heard that as of yesterday 50 truckloads were able to get into the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is the only crossing available now for direct assistance; the other crossing being Nahal Oz, which is taking industrial fuel in particular. We'll talk about that in just a little bit. In addition to that, there are 41.5 truckloads that were able to get in on the 5th of January. And just to put this into perspective, one of the things that we have been trying to ascertain is when you talk about a truckload, particularly of food, what exactly are you talking about? Of course, it depends on the contents of that truckload. But if you're talking about something as simple as rice, for example, the estimation that I've received--and perhaps you can add something to this actually--when I talked to Bill from ANERA [American Near East Refugee Aid], what we're hearing is basically enough food to feed 100 families for three days. I would urge you again to try and validate that on your own, but this is what we're hearing from our folks at the U.N. and from some of our colleagues who work at the other organizations here in town, including ANERA which is doing fantastic work. One hundred families for three days. We're talking now about a population of 1.5 million people, 70 to 80 percent of whom, depending on who you believe, are initially, originally refugees from the creation of the State of Israel. Eighty percent of whom depend on food assistance to survive before the attacks began and 80 percent of whom live below the poverty line as it is defined in Palestine. So, to say that 50 truckloads of food got into Gaza is essentially to say that you're giving them less than a drop in the bucket, the proverbial drop in the bucket of helping people. This, of course, does not factor into the equation, the issue of all of the injured, the wounded, the dead and the mourning that exists in Gaza today.
The Nahal Oz pipeline--just to give you a brief update on that as well--we're hearing that on the 6th of January, which of course was yesterday, was completely closed. And this is again for industrial fuel; industrial fuel which not only powers the generation plants that give electricity but also provides the fuel that powers the generators that allows physicians, surgeons and hospitals to continue to treat the wounded. We're hearing reports now that at the largest hospital in Gaza, which is Al-Shifa, they have all of two days worth of industrial fuel left to perform all of the much needed medical attention that they have to perform at this point. There's no sign that Nahal Oz, by the way, was opened today, although we haven't heard final word about it. Anyone who may know better, I urge you to speak up.
Rafah--which is an entirely different issue that I'm not inclined to get into today because of the politics of where Egypt stands on all this--I can tell you just as a matter of fact that ten truckloads of medical supplies were allowed into Gaza yesterday and 18 medical cases were evacuated. The Karni conveyor belt--which is the only crossing point into Gaza that allows wheat grain, which allows the bakeries to continue to make bread, which is the absolute minimum the people who are going hungry need in order to not be hungry--was completely closed yesterday, and it has remained closed throughout these attacks. There's no sign of it opening. Only nine bakeries, as a result, remain open in Gaza. This is nine bakeries out of an estimated 53 that we know of. And those bakeries have not received any flour since December 27, the beginning of the attacks. Prices of this bread, as a direct result, have doubled in most areas of the Gaza Strip. And even if people are able to afford it, they don't have the cash to be able to pay for the bread.
Let's pause here for just a moment. As Samar mentioned, before I started working at UPA, I worked for the World Bank, and we worked on access to finance, which is another World Bank way of saying microfinance. It's a way of giving poor people access to credit, to savings, to various financial services to be able to lift themselves out of poverty. And I have never, in all of my time either at the World Bank or USAID [United States Agency for International Development], heard of a situation where people are unable to buy bread simply because they do not have the physical pieces of paper, the shekels that come from the Central Bank of Israel at their disposal. Even if someone were to find work--and there are upwards of 100,000 people who participate in the food for work program by way of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency]--they are unable to actually get the physical paper and the coins to be able to go out to the market and buy things.
It is unprecedented what we are seeing in Gaza today. There are shortages of cooking because of the inability to get anything into Gaza today whether it be industrial fuel or gas of that nature. Therefore, households which have access to dry goods--rice in the case that we were talking about before--are unable to cook it. And even if cooking gas were able to get in to Gaza, we've heard the same story when it came to food and medications. The U.N. and UNRWA, in particular, is reporting extreme difficulty not only getting it at the crossing point but being able to distribute it to people who need it the most, particularly in the north of Gaza. The U.N. for several days up until this point has been unable to distribute food due to the security situation. We're hearing now that roughly 20,000 people are receiving food assistance from UNRWA; this after thirteen days of suspending that effort. And again, we revert back to that number--80 percent of 1.5 million people requiring food aid. The U.N. is only able to reach 20,000 a day after 13 days of being unable to distribute food. In fact, on January 6, which was yesterday, there was absolutely no distribution of food. That's something we can confirm. In addition, the World Food Program [WFP], which manages the majority of the food that comes into Gaza, is unable to reach 70 percent of its stocks that are in place in warehouses throughout the Gaza Strip.
I'll give you a few more pieces of information for anyone who's looking to report on this. Three out of the 56 Palestinian Ministry of Health primary health care clinics are able to operate and function now. We're talking here about clinics, not hospitals. But these are clinics that are dispersed throughout the Gaza Strip that are able to reach communities and neighborhoods that are unserved by hospitals like Al-Shifa, for example. There's a shortage of fuel for the generators, and that is perhaps the primary reason why these 53 clinics are unable to function. We're hearing reports that with the three that are still functioning, they're facing a similar situation as with the hospitals in the sense that they only have enough diesel fuel, industrial fuel to last them five more days.
Going back to the issue of the school that was bombed earlier, this UNRWA shelter. Apparently, where UNRWA was reporting to us, there were about 23 of them throughout the Gaza Strip. And there are 14,000 people seeking shelter in these shelters now. They too are running low on food stocks. They have no access to electricity or heat, and in some cases, we're looking at situations where fresh water is also running dangerously low. In addition to that, there is a severe lack of things like blankets, mattresses, coats and clothing for people who fled their homes in a hurry and don't have a way to protect themselves from what is inevitably the cold weather of January in Gaza.
The Gaza power plant--and we can say with some certainty now that more than 800,000 people lack access to electricity, I've heard estimates upwards of one million people--is nowhere near being able to function at this point. Not only was it bombed, not only does it lack access to the fuel to make it work, but also the power lines that run from the generation plant to the various sort of substations that allow people in the refugee camps to have electricity have been damaged. Our understanding at this point is that there are two functioning electrical wires or ways to transfer electricity from the generation plant to the substations that are functional, and that the spare parts to be able to make these things work have not been let in over the course of the last 13 days. On January 6, which of course was yesterday, 215,000 liters of industrial gasoline were transferred to Nahal Oz but did not make it through. To reoperationalize the one power generating turbine in Gaza--this is a direct quote from UNRWA--"the plant requires a minimum of 300,000 liters." Again, 215,000 were delivered yesterday but not to the generation plant, simply to Nahal Oz. Three thousand liters are required to make it operational again equaling six trucks, and those 300,000 liters would produce one quarter of Gaza City's energy needs for a period of two days, not the entire Gaza City's energy needs. Again, 300,000 liters are needed to power one quarter of Gaza City's energy needs for a period of two days. That's the latest from the ground in terms of UNRWA.
Now, the humanitarian corridor that we heard about yesterday; I actually heard about it as I was sitting in a chair waiting to be interviewed by somebody on Al Jazeera English. He literally got the wire as I was sitting there, and he asked me a question giving me absolutely no time to think about it, "What do you think about this humanitarian corridor?" We don't know what's happened today, but I can tell you that based on the facts we received yesterday, Israelis were talking about three hours a day for a limited amount of supplies to be determined by the Israelis. And our understanding is--is anyone here from the state department, by the way? Okay, perhaps you could verify this or tell me that I'm wrong. My understanding is that the spare parts that are needed to get into Gaza to make the generational plant functional to fix any number of buildings, clinics, hospitals, schools that have been damaged are not being allowed into Gaza. Is that true? That's my understanding as well. And frankly it reminds me of the horrific situation in Iraq during thirteen years of sanctions. I remember at the time that things like lead pencils, a sort of famous example, were not allowed into Iraq because they represented a dual use item because they had lead in them. So, am I inclined to take the Israelis at their word that this represents a humanitarian corridor? No, I am not. And even if I did, if this were a humanitarian corridor, what we are asking for today as an organization that represents the interests of the Palestinian people, what The Jerusalem Fund, I imagine, would ask the same of and what everyone in this room should urge all of our policy makers, all of the politicians in this country and beyond to do is not open a humanitarian corridor but to open the Gaza Strip.
Let's go back for a moment and remind ourselves that when we hear Israeli spokespeople talk about the lack of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, we don't need to even go there, do we? This humanitarian crisis was at least 18 months in the making. We saw a situation in Gaza in June of 2007 whereby, according to WHO [World Health Organization], WFP and U.N. figures, the people of Gaza were receiving all of 10 percent of the supplies that they received a year earlier across the board, whether we're talking medication, whether we're talking spare parts, whether we're talking about fuel or food. For 18 months, the people of Gaza have been subjected to a siege unlike any we have seen since the ghettos of Warsaw. And if anyone is offended by that parallel then they need only look at the statistics.
They need only to consider that in the Gaza Strip, as of eight months ago, there were eleven incubators for prematurely born children serving 1.5 million people, and seven of them did not work. The other four worked only when the electricity was on. They need only consider that in a strip of land with 1.5 million people in it you have nurses and physicians using something called an ambu bag, which is a manually operated respirator, to keep people alive for hours and days on end. We have seen stories. We have seen photographs, literally, of this bag, small bag that contains oxygen in it and people sitting on top of a patient and pressing it like this for hours and days on end to keep patients alive. This ambu bag was designed to be used in an emergency room for a matter of minutes until a surgeon or a nurse or somebody who's an expert at this can come in and insert an endotracheal tube, which can then be connected to an automatic respirator that can keep somebody alive. It wasn't intended for the use that it's being used for in Gaza today. When you add to that, ladies and gentlemen, the fact that in the first two days of the bombing in Gaza, 100 tons of bombs were dropped killing anywhere between 300 and 400 people, depending on who you believe, what you have is a situation that, believe it or not according to a statistic I'm about to cite, is more dramatic, more lethal, more deadly than Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And here's why. Because our military, like militaries all over the world, has something, a sick notion called the kill ratio. And the kill ratio says that for every ton of bomb you drop, how many people do you kill? And I'm here to tell you today that the 3 to 4 people who were killed by each ton of bomb that the Israelis dropped on Gaza represents at least 2 or 3 times more than the kill ratio in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. You can look this one up.
Just this morning, I heard an Israeli official talk about the old, tired, familiar excuse for killing so many civilians, and that is Hamas likes to hide in civilian areas, densely populated urban areas. And I would challenge anyone on the Israeli side to point on a map, clearly for me, where there are rural areas in the Gaza Strip. Where are those rural areas when you have 1.5 million people on a strip of land 25 miles long? They don't exist. That's the simple truth. One hundred tons of bombs in two days. We haven't gotten the count yet for the entire charade that has been perpetrated in Gaza today. What we know now, however, is that the troops are in there, and they're mortaring, they're shelling and they're closing off entire parts of the Gaza Strip.
Now, we get into what is the proper response in a situation like that. First and foremost, the most important point that needs to be made is that when we are asked at UPA and when anyone of you in this room is asked by anyone, what about the Hamas rockets? My answer has been for the last thirteen days where on earth would you have a million refugees without access to electricity, water or shelter, and the first question that comes to your mind to a humanitarian agency is what about the Hamas rockets? It's irrelevant to me. It's irrelevant to more and more people in this country. It's irrelevant to more and more people worldwide because, as I say, the cat is out of the bag. And everyone knows now that the original sin in this crisis is the creation of one million refugees in the Gaza Strip today. Where did they come from? Why are they there? And why are they under siege? That is the essential question.
Thirteen days ago when we received word of the bombings--and of course we had known for 18 months running that it was difficult to get things into Gaza--the first question on everyone's minds, the emails that we received, the phone calls was can you get anything in? And we answered no because that's the truth. But we weren't content to say nothing can be done because that is not true. Something can be done and can be done on two fronts. Number one, you pick up the phone and you call people in Gaza and you say, "What's there? What's available? You tell us." What did we find out? We found out that there's something that's called plastic sheeting, about which I knew nothing ten days ago. It comes in different thicknesses, and it costs roughly $2.50 a square meter. And guess what? It's used all over the world to cover tents, to keep people warm. It's used to cover windows that have been blown out by bombs, to give them shelter against the wind and the cold. And if that's available in Gaza, we must find a way to get it to the people who need it.
We also found that there is bread in Gaza. There's not much of it, but it's there. And the problem has been, first and foremost, people don't have cash to buy it. So what do you do? You talk to the organizations on the ground. This is exactly what UPA did. We called the organizations on the ground, and we said do you know the suppliers well enough to make an arrangement with them such that you can by an X number of loaves of bread, X number of bags of rice and we provide you with a guarantee at a bank account in Ramallah? Would they be willing to do that? And, of course, everyone did because people bond together in situations like this. So, we have effectively for the past thirteen days been playing the role of guarantor for these sorts of small interventions at the community level, at the neighborhood level. Furthermore, on the health front, we are in no position to provide the 300,000 liters of industrial fuel that Al-Shifa hospital needs to run for two days. But we are in a position to look, again with local suppliers on the market in Gaza, for things like endotracheal tubes. We found 4,000 of them, and we bought them all up. We sent them to Jabaliya and Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia. We sent them there, fortunately, three days before the ground invasion began.
Here's the final point I'll make because I'm running out of time. None of this would be possible were it not for the second front that we should be fighting in this war. And it is a war. It is not a war between two armies. It is a war between two narratives--one that claims that there are two equal sides here, that there are two victimizers and one that understands that there's a clear victim and a clear victimizer. Our side of the war must involve an unrelenting insistence that this is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis, and it must require all of us who care about Palestinians in Gaza today to commit what has now become in this country an act of defiance. That act of defiance is to give money to Palestine. This is not a fundraising pitch on my part. I'm speaking here simply about the issue of charity in Palestine. Let me be more clear. Anyone hear of the Holy Land Foundation? Okay. After the Holy Land Foundation case, we received a number of calls from people saying, "Is it safe?" How do I answer that question? I answer it, "Yes, of course." I can give assurances. I can say, first and foremost, we don't work with political organizations. I can say we have a relatively decent relationship with the [U.S.] Treasury Department, which of course regulates all of the grant giving in Palestine. I can say we've got a board member who gets on TV every now and then and writes an article every now and then and knows a couple of big shots up on Capitol Hill. We got political cover. I can say we've been around for 30 years. I can say we're rated by Charity Navigator. I can say any number of things. But you know what? The only thing that will compel the people who have given us money over the past thirteen days to give is that sense of defiance. It's a sense of defiance that says what's more important here is not whether or not someone, somewhere will put my name on a list. What's more important is that I received a donation just this morning from someone in Bulgaria who gave us $10; [one] can make a statement with $10. What's more important is that the woman in China, who teaches on the outskirts of Beijing, can rally the ten schools in her neighborhood to come together to host a fundraiser for Palestine. I swear to you this is true. What's more important is that I receive an email from somebody who has $5 to give and says, "I'm Mexican-American, and I can see the truth now. I can see the injustice." Over the course of the last thirteen days, hundreds of hundreds of these donations have come in to the tune now of about $60,000. And I say that proudly. I say that proudly even though I know and what everyone in this room should know that were the same thing to happen in reverse that we would be talking about $50 million dollars or $500 million dollars or $5 billion dollars. But I don't care because I know that the seven or eight hundred or 1,000 or 2,000 people who ultimately will give us $10 a piece are out there to push the second front in this war, which is speaking the truth, speaking the truth to power, advocating.
I will close with this. As we, those of us in the charity business--and it many times appears to be a business because it's all about fundraising and revenue and whether or not you can prove to the world you can raise more money than spend it--as we consider what comes next, we have to make some serious and fundamental choices about where we take our money from and the implications it has for what we can do and the ways in which we can fulfill our mission. I say this not as a political statement but as a matter of fact. In six months in the year 2008, according to the World Bank, $1 billion dollars in direct foreign assistance flowed into the West Bank of Palestine--$1 billion dollars. If you care to look at the website for U.S. Agency for International Development and follow the request for proposals that they put out, you'll see that there are any number of grants, any number of projects out there to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It's available to us. We're registered with the U.S. Agency for International Development. We can take that money. We can do work in the West Bank. We can help people. The question is what is our priority? And if I'm able to raise half a million dollars a year as opposed to $50 million and help the people of Gaza and look bad on paper because I didn't raise $50 million dollars, what do I choose? What do I do as the head of a charity here in Washington? It's an open question. But I leave you with this because that is exactly where we are right now in terms of our strategic thinking. I would say to you that if we were to choose the alternate course, if we were to say that we will not do the bidding of those who are showering us with money and we will go to the places that have been shut off to the world and we will try our best, who then will support us? And the answer, ladies and gentlemen, is you. That's the answer. The $10 a month, the $5 dollars one time from the Mexican-American, the however many hundreds of dollars that we're going to get from China, it's a movement now, ladies and gentlemen. It is not about politics. It's about the human beings who live there. And everyone in this room must leave today believing that, believing that we have reached a critical mass whereby if we show our defiance not only with our words but also through our money--not only to UPA but to ANERA and to The Jerusalem Fund and to all of the other organizations who work on this issue--that we can finally affect a change and an end to the occupation.
Samer Badawi is the executive director of United Palestinian Appeal.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker's views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.