Message to donors and Tony Blair: Give Gaza its future

Chris Gunness of UNRWA says Gazans are freezing to death as international community continues to fail 900,000 children.

Gaza displaced family
UNICEF says four children have died in 2015 due to hypothermia caused by poor living conditions among displaced families [Belal Hasna/Al Jazeera]

Gaza – Freezing weather conditions and flooding continue to affect tens of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes during last summer’s Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip.

The seven-week conflict ended in a truce on August 26, 2014. The UN reported that 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed during 51 days of conflict.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recently assessed that 96,000 Palestinian refugee dwellings remain either destroyed or damaged, a figure expected to rise in its next review. Displaced families remain in overcrowded, unsanitary temporary shelters.

Last October, at the Cairo conference, international donors pledged $5.4bn for the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, homes and neighbourhoods. These funding commitments have not yet been met.

Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s director of advocacy and strategic communications, talked to Al Jazeera on simple solutions, an alternative future for Gaza and the weak advocacy of Tony Blair.

Al Jazeera: You have chosen to speak out in strong terms about the conditions in Gaza. What have you seen recently that is any different from the “normal” hardships people have faced under the seven-year siege?

Chris Gunness: On my last trip to Gaza a few days ago, I met Jibril al-Masri, a 62-year-old grandfather. He’s probably unique among grandparents in that two of his grandchildren have died of hypothermia in the past two weeks. Baby Salma was just 40 days old and Moemen just 50 days old.

Salma was living in what can only be described as a hut where most people would keep their animals. She was in that structure when Storm Huda struck in January. The blankets she was swathed in became soaked as did the entire family.

She was, in the words of her mother, “as cold as ice cream”. The baby turned blue and her tiny body was trembling. They took her to hospital and a day later the doctor rang and said she had died.

The entire international community has let Gaza down, financially, politically, in all respects.

by Chris Gunness, UNRWA

Jibril’s other grandchild was actually in an UNRWA school. He was exposed to cruelly cold weather conditions. For five years his mother had desperately wanted a son. Sadly, he has been taken from her.

Four children have died in Gaza of hypothermia recently according to UNICEF; two of them belonging to the family of Jibril al-Masri.

Al Jazeera: What caused this family to live in such a potentially dangerous condition?

Gunness: They were in a complex of four buildings which was completely destroyed [during the war]. The smallholding they had – he is a farmer – which had lemon trees, was completely bulldozed. I guess for security purposes.

They then fled to the brother’s house and when that became too dangerous, they fled to a hospital, which was hit.

They ran away from the hospital and went to a school which was massively overcrowded with thousands of people [inside]. They then they had no choice but to set up home in this appalling wooden structure.

Al Jazeera: The international community pledged billions for the rebuilding of damaged areas and infrastructure. So why are tens of thousands of Gazans homeless six months after the ceasefire?

Gunness: The donor community pledged $5.4bn in Cairo. UNRWA has had to suspend a $720m programme for cash for repairs and for rebuilding. Jibril looked at me and he said: “The international donor community is responsible for killing my grandchildren.”

Don’t miss the opportunity. Give Gaza back its future
Chris Gunness to Tony Blair

Al Jazeera: Who’s not paying up and why?

Gunness: If you look at how people pledged in Cairo they didn’t say we will pledge $10m to UNRWA and $10m to the Palestinian Authority, people just came and pledged huge sums.

The Qataris pledged $1bn, the Saudis pledged half that and our programmes were in response to those pledges. When we approached donors and said, “Where’s the money,” they haven’t been very forthcoming.

The entire international community has let Gaza down, financially, politically, in all respects. 

We [UNRWA] must advocate to the donor community to make them realise that they are being judged very harshly and need to address this.

Al Jazeera: Isn’t the problem that there is no mechanism currently being used to make those responsible for this situation feel they should behave differently?

Gunness: You’re right, the correct political pressures are not being brought to bear. We all know what the right political pressures are.

Everyone knows which members of the Quartet (US, European Union, UN and Russia) should pull which levers. But the correct levers are not being pulled. 

Al Jazeera: Do you feel that envoy to the Quartet, Tony Blair, is doing what needs to be done to ease civilian suffering and to promote solutions? 

Gunness: I have just quoted a man as saying the donor community has killed his grandchildren. I don’t know how much clearer I can be than that. I have made it quite clear that the time for humanitarian action alone is long past.

We need political action.

You’re right, Tony Blair is “the Quartet” and he was just in Gaza, by the way. One can name names until we’re blue in the face. When our schools were hit last summer and children were killed we named names. What difference did it make?

Al Jazeera: Can you visualise a time when Gaza may recover from its current condition?

Gunness: The blockade has to be lifted so that there can be import and export. There is little point to reconstructing Gaza while condemning its population to the perpetual indignities of aid dependency.

Clearly, Gaza has to be allowed to have a functioning economy. All the crossings with Israel have to be opened. The Rafah crossing with Egypt has to be opened. The government of national consensus needs to assume its obligations inside Gaza.

It’s not difficult to work out what needs to be done. It is part of a vision that is possible.

If those simple things are done, it is perfectly possible to imagine Gaza as a thriving hub. It could be a tourist hub, it could be one of the most beautiful destinations on the Mediterranean frankly.

Al Jazeera: If you had the chance to sit down with Tony Blair and the emir of Qatar what would you say today?

Gunness: Don’t miss the opportunity. Give Gaza back its future. There are 950,000 children in Gaza and they must not go the way Salma and Momoen went. They must not be allowed to perish because of the political failings of the international donor community and the parties to the conflict.

Source: Al Jazeera