Despite encouraging developments in Gaza since Israel eased its blockade in June, with shops now full of consumer goods, the economic, humanitarian, and physical situation is still extremely bleak, the top United Nations official there said today, calling for speedy moves to revive the territory’s economy
“We have a huge amount of progress still to make to have a meaningful impact for the population on the ground,” John Ging, Gaza Director for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), told reporters in New York, stressing that 80 per cent of the population is dependent on aid and cannot afford to buy what is available in the shops.
“The plight of the people is still desperate,” he said, citing the tiny proportion of construction projects that have so far been approved by Israel – only six of the 100 schools UNRWA has sought to keep up with the student population – and the need to revive the economy through full access for both imports and exports.
“All of us on the ground are encouraged by positive developments because we have to turn a corner and we feel that we have turned a corner. We’re still at the bottom of the ladder and we have a hell of a long way to climb back up and that’s why we’re saying now let’s go. For four years we were going in the wrong direction. We have now turned that corner and we are going in the right direction. We need to speed it up.”
Israel has blockaded Gaza for over three years but in June it started allowing in more civilian goods while still restricting access to concrete, iron and other materials that the UN says are needed to repair the devastating damage caused by the 2008-2009 offensive Israel said it launched to halt rocket and other attacks against it. Israel says these materials could be used for offensive purposes.
Mr. Ging noted that there was 80 per cent aid dependency among Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants. “The water situation is in crisis, 90 per cent according to the World Health Organization calculations is unfit for human consumption, 80 million cubic litres of sewage continues to be pumped out into the Mediterranean every single day untreated,” he noted.
Tens of thousands of houses that were destroyed in Israel’s offensive still stand in ruins and the construction projects that have been approved so far only account for about 7 per cent of the UN portfolio.
“Moving forward, that is what we have to focus on,” Mr. Ging said, stressing the need to revive the commercial sector and resuscitate the import and export economy, with 95 per cent of the business sector now dormant, so as to get people back to work and off aid dependency.
“The donor community is no longer able to meet the financial costs of this level of aid dependency,” he added, while still striking what he called “a note of hope and opportunity and urgency.”
Detailing the dire needs of the educational sector, with its desperate overcrowding and children learning in shipping containers, he said UNRWA wanted to build 40 schools over the next six to eight months, with 60 more over the next two years, but only six have so far been approved. This would mean turning away 34,000 children. “We must move forward at a much more rapid pace,” he declared.
Access is key for all development, he stressed, calling the blockade “illegal, inhumane and counter-productive,” and underscoring the need to move beyond the humanitarian and consumer areas to bringing in commercial supplies and opening up exports.
He added that he had encountered good will on the Israeli side and was encouraged by his recent contacts, but this needs to be converted into positive action.
It has been shown over the past six months that progress is possible – “it’s small, but possible” – and now the pace must be stepped up, he concluded. “Let’s seize on the opportunity.”