22 April 2007By Sonia Nettnin
Chicago- Director of the Representative Office of UNRWA, Andrew Whitley spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank.
This week a number of governments, led by the Canadians, will meet in Berlin where they will discuss political futures and options for refugees. Whitley talked about the living conditions of Palestinian refugees.
Who is Andrew Whitley? He works for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, located in New York. For over three years Whitley lived in Gaza, and he has worked on the subject of the Occupied Palestinian Territories for over 25 years. In Tehran and New York he worked as an academic; as a foreign correspondent specializing in Middle East, South Asia and Latin America, with the BBC and the Financial Times; and in human rights. He was the founding director of Middle East Watch – now Human Rights Watch/Middle East and North Africa.
The theme for his lecture, “Humanitarian Crisis in Palestine: A Gathering Storm,” focused on Gaza, which is one of the 59 officially-recognized refugee camps.
“We have become very alarmed by the fragmentation of Palestinian society particularly in the West Bank,” Whitley said.
With at least 530 barriers and checkpoints in place, peoples’ lives are completely disrupted. Moreover, Palestinian villages have been torn asunder by movement restrictions because they do not have normal economic life. He compared the size of the West Bank to the state of Connecticut, and with words he painted a picture of people living in atomized areas. Israel’s construction of a wall that is projected to be 700 km is 60 per cent complete. There is a degree of permanence to the sectioning because the Jordan Valley has been carved off for Israeli settlements and the West Bank has been divided into a northern and a southern area. As a result, the West Bank is now a trisection containing enclaves of Palestinian cities and villages.
Although the Israeli Army established checkpoints in the name of security, “I would argue the means to tackle these threats…leads to a sense of nihilism, pent up anger that …brings about the results they are trying to avoid,” Whitley explained.
Palestinians are Hungry – Weak Blood and Eyes Hurting
For the Palestinians, the situation is grave. In Gaza there are an estimated 1.4 million Palestinians and approximately 80 per cent of the population lives below the official poverty line at US $2.05 per day per capita. The Palestinian Gross Domestic Product collapsed by 23 per cent in the last year. One million, or 70 per cent of these people, are registered as refugees and 1.05 million people depend on international assistance.
“We keep (including the World Food Program) these people alive these days and the degree they have become dependent on the international community for lack of resources is troubling indeed,” Whitley said.
Since the parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Palestinians have been placed under economic siege. The strategy is to inflict political defeat on Hamas by inflicting the Palestinian population.
On February 16, 2006 it was Israeli Prime Ministerial Advisor Dov Weisglass who said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
According to Whitley, an estimated 40 per cent of Gaza’s population does not get an adequate supply of food, even with international assistance. The hospitals are approximately 20 per cent short of the necessary drugs and supplies needed for medical treatment. Although malnutrition has been a long-term problem with women and children, growth stunting and a worsening diet means “…children are not growing normally in all of their faculties…we will see long-term results within a decade but evidence is quite clear,” Whitley added.
In a video shot in Gaza recently, the UN conducted interviews with the people.
“Most children have bad health kids have weak blood they are weak and their eyes are hurting,” one man says.
Within the last year an estimated 450 business owners closed down. People try to trade their gold for cash, but they are turned away because there is no cash.
“People don’t have food. Life is difficult. People need food but they are hungry,” another person said.
One girl explained that she can see her father cannot bring home food.
Another boy said: “I feel all this but no one cares about us.”
In March 2006, Erez border crossing was closed to Palestinian laborers who work in Israel. The Israeli Government has imposed a gradual policy of zero Palestinian laborers in Israel.
The Karni border crossing closures have caused the delay of goods and cargo from moving in and out of Gaza. In 2006, Israel closed Karni 50 per cent of the working days. This means the thrust of the Palestinian economy in Gaza - agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables and flowers – rotted at the border crossing. In 2006 the UN paid one million in fees to Israeli companies because of the Karni crossing closures. Most of this one million came from European and US taxpayers.
Why did the UN have to pay these fees? Hundreds of full and empty shipping containers move in and out of Gaza. If the border crossing closes, cargo and goods are stored at Israeli ports and terminals. Therefore, trucks sit in park.
When the UN was trying to move their goods, they experienced the same situation and paid fees for crossing closures out of their control.
The overall impression is that the UN faces an acute moral dilemma. They want to help the refugees, but there are many political, social and economic factors preventing them from doing so. Perhaps the organization is being used. Although the humanitarian organization works in highly-politicized environments, one of their challenges is to preserve political neutrality.
When asked what he would say if he had the chance to talk with world leaders, Whitley made several statements. One of them was: “I would tell them that their policies are counterproductive.”
Recent Report on the Situation:
Oxfam survey: Financial boycott pushes Palestinians into poverty, April 13, 2007