Q&A: ‘Gaza Will Take Years to Recover’

Gaza will need years to recover from the devastating Israeli assault, says Katharina Ritz, head of mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Israel’s 22-day assault left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, and decimated much of the coastal territory’s infrastructure.

Mel Frykberg interviews KATHARINA RITZ of the ICRC

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: How long do you think it will take for Gaza to be rehabilitated?

Katharina Ritz: Gaza will take several years at the very least to recover from the Israeli military campaign. This is the best case scenario, assuming that the border crossings are opened permanently and all the necessary aid and help is allowed in unhindered.

IPS: How will the reconstruction take place, and what will this involve?

KR: There will be several stages. The initial shortages of electricity, water, food and medicine can be met, and the sewage and water systems repaired within weeks if sufficient quantities of spare parts, fuel and humanitarian aid are allowed in.

There are enough Gazans with the expertise and experience to deal with these issues.

IPS: What about repairing the damaged infrastructure?

KR: Rebuilding all the damaged and destroyed homes will obviously take several months, assuming the Israelis permit the importation of the necessary construction material, which they prevented from entering the territory even before the military operation.

But before the reconstruction can even commence it is essential for the remaining Israeli ordnances left over from the war to be cleared away to ensure the safety of the population.

IPS: The economy too is in dire straits. Was this problematic even before the Israeli operation?

KR: Yes, the next stage will require the rehabilitation of the crippled economy, and this could take several years.

Prior to the Israeli assault, the economy was barely functioning. To operate even on a basic level again, substantial investment and rehabilitation of the agricultural and private sectors is imperative.

Israel and Egypt, supported by the international community, enforced an economic blockade on the Gaza strip following Hamas’s take-over in June 2007. Only a bare minimum of humanitarian aid has been allowed in sporadically since then.

IPS: What is the final step to the coastal territory’s rehabilitation.

KR: The final question which will have to be addressed in the long term is the psychological scars, and the trauma which the civilian population has been subjected to.

IPS: The Israeli government has claimed that there is no humanitarian crisis on the ground and that sufficient aid is reaching Gaza. Do you agree with this?

KR: There is still a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza despite the temporary openings of some of the border crossings.

After three weeks of being trapped and unable to access basic services, Gaza’s population cannot overcome problems in three days of ceasefire. However, the rapid withdrawal of the IDF has allowed aid to begin flowing in and the humanitarian relief effort to get under way.

IPS: How much aid is getting in and how much is needed?

KR: Under normal conditions approximately 400 trucks of aid per day are necessary to meet the essential needs of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants, half of whom are refugees. While Israel and Egypt have allowed aid trucks in, at present the number is still insufficient to meet everyday requirements, let alone the increased demand following the war.

IPS: Have you seen any improvements since the ceasefire?

KR: What has improved with the cessation of the shelling and shooting is the ability of Gazans to move freely around to access humanitarian relief points for food and other emergency aid.

International aid has also been flooding in through Egypt’s Rafah crossing in the south, including tonnes of medical and food aid, ambulances, medicines and medical teams.

IPS: What is the ICRC doing on the ground to help meet the needs of Gazans?

KR: During the first days of the ceasefire the ICRC delivered emergency supplies such as plastic sheeting for covering up roofs and windows in the cold winter weather. Ten thousand of the 50,000 Palestinians that fled their homes and sought shelter with the UN are still homeless due to their homes being destroyed or damaged.

Our next emergency delivery will be food and hygiene kits. But Gazans also desperately need everyday essentials such as light bulbs, baby milk formula and diapers which are not supplied in emergency kits.

Stores have run low on everyday items, and there is a shortage of cash to purchase the supplies that remain.

IPS: Are the Palestinian authorities in Gaza able to join the reconstruction effort?

KR: Water trucks operated by the Palestinian water authority and the civil community are bringing in drinking water as an emergency stop-gap until the electricity and water infrastructure is repaired.

Due to the extensive damage done to the electricity grid from the aerial bombing, water wells and water pipes are unable to pump water to homes. Fuel shortages have restricted the ability of emergency generators to operate water and sewage plants as a standby coping mechanism.

Even before Israel’s military operation, Tel Aviv’s economic embargo prevented the entry of most spare parts, and the inability to repair the damaged infrastructure forced these plants to operate at minimum capacity.

IPS: What are some of the problems that the ICRC is trying to overcome?

KR: The threat of the outbreak of disease due to contaminated water is still a concern as raw sewage is flowing through the streets of parts of Gaza.

An embankment of a main sewage treatment dam in the Zeitoun area of Gaza city collapsed during the fighting, causing sewage to flow into agricultural fields. This was exacerbated by rotting animal carcasses and the corpses of Gazans buried underneath rubble.

Emergency teams have started repairs to the sewage and water treatment plants. Our contractor has managed to isolate this dam and is repairing the embankment.

For over a year Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) has been forced to pump tonnes of untreated sewage into the sea, which filtered back into the underground water table, contaminating drinking supplies.

IPS: Is the ICRC keeping tabs of the aid that Israel is allowing into the territory?

KR: We will be monitoring whether sufficient spare parts and fuel will be allowed in by the Israeli authorities in the following weeks. If they are not, we will intervene.

IPS: Will sufficient humanitarian aid alleviate the suffering ultimately?

KR: All the humanitarian aid in the world will not alleviate the human suffering if a political resolution to the conflict is not found.