Commentary: How to avert more death and despair in Gaza

Scores of Palestinians killed. Thousands wounded. That’s the toll exacted over the past seven weeks by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against protesters along the security fence separating Gaza from Israel. Unless the situation gets defused quickly, the carnage is likely to get much worse.

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Since early April, weekly “Great March of Return” demonstrations have focused on the plight of more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees driven from their homeland in 1948. Exacerbated by the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday – when 60 Palestinians died and about 2,700 were injured – and further fueled by Israeli independence anniversary celebrations and Tuesday’s Palestinian commemoration of Al Nakba (“The Catastrophe”), another catastrophe appears to be unfolding.

Here’s how to avert even more death and despair.

As the peace process has stalled, living conditions in Gaza have grown increasingly desperate: only an average of five hours of electricity per day, dwindling supplies of food and medicine, staggeringly high unemployment rates (nearly 45 percent overall, and over 60 percent among young people), rising levels of water pollution (more than 90 percent is contaminated) and disease (sewage pumps need electricity), and an economy that has virtually come to a halt.

Even so, based on my observations and conversations with key NGO leaders and others during my recent visit to Gaza, nothing’s wrong there that, on a humanitarian level, can’t be significantly improved in a few months. The larger political question, which has defied resolution for 70 years, will take much longer. But a fundamental tenet of civilized behavior in the modern world is that human beings shouldn’t die of disease, starvation, or other forms of neglect while political conflicts are addressed.

Gaza is not Syria or Yemen. Much of the infrastructure is intact and working when the electricity is on, and the basic institutions – homes, schools, hospitals, businesses – still function, albeit precariously.

What must be done? First, Gaza needs electricity 24/7. Electricity has been an issue in Gaza since the Israel Defense Forces destroyed Gaza City’s only power plant in 2006 in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas – a savagely disproportionate response. Even so, the power can be fully restored. Egypt and Israel can supply fuel to existing power plants, and both can turn on electric lines into Gaza. They have done so in the past in limited measure, and they could readily do so now. This would bolster public and private collaborations currently underway to provide Gazans with water and sanitation.

Second, Washington needs to restore full funding to USAID and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education, medical care, and food aid to more than half of Gaza’s 2 million people. The United States, UNRWA’s largest donor nation, gave $355 million to UNRWA in 2017 for Gaza, but the Trump administration has pledged only $125 million in 2018 — and has thus far announced it is withholding $110 million of that commitment. A senior official told me during my visit that unless full funding is restored by the end of May, UNRWA will further curtail its stretched-thin medical and food programs, and also lay off 9,000 teachers and close 275 schools, leaving 273,000 children and youth without classes to attend after summer break. Without education, the children and youth of Gaza will increasingly have nothing left to lose – a lethal incubator of anger and violence within Gaza, and a potentially overwhelming security risk to Israel. UNRWA funding could be restored now.

Third, 12 years of restrictions on border crossings have had devastating consequences. More than 90 percent of Gazan children under the age of 12, who make up one-third of the population, have never left Gaza; the only Israelis most have ever seen are pointing tanks and guns their way. Also, workers from Gaza can no longer cross the border to work, shortchanging both Gaza and Israel. In addition, two senior hospital officials in Gaza City told me that there are no CT scanners, MRI machines, or radiation equipment (and relatively little chemotherapy medication) in Gaza. Patients who have cancer – and especially women with breast cancer – must travel to Ramallah. However, many of these patients are denied permits to travel. As a result, Gaza’s cancer survival rates are significantly lower than in countries like Israel and the United States. People with serious illnesses should not be sentenced to death in the name of Israeli security. The most egregious border restrictions could be lifted.

In the fourth chapter of Genesis, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims claim as sacred scripture, the story is told of two brothers – Cain and Abel – who offer sacrifices to God from their flocks. According to the story, God favors Abel’s offering more than Cain’s, who responds by luring Abel out into the field and killing him. When God asks Cain what has happened to Abel, Cain feigns ignorance: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cried out to me from the ground.”

In moral terms, those who can help avert the looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza should help – turn on the power, write the check, ease the border. Three powerful men – America’s Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – could make a profound difference, and thereby set the peace process on a different course.

If they refuse to act? Shame on them. Once the blood of exponentially more Gazans cries out from the ground, the moral judgment on those who refused to help will be even harsher, and the political impasse will grow even greater. There’s still time to avert another catastrophe.

About the Author

Galen Guengerich is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.