ABU DHABI // This week, a convoy of 18 ambulances completed a long and arduous journey from Abu Dhabi to the Gaza Strip. The "caravan of ambulances", as the UAE Red Crescent Authority's secretary general adviser, Dr Saleh al Taei, described the convoy, set off from the capital to Jeddah, then sailed to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba, before moving on to Al Arish and finally to Rafah on the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Two weeks after the journey began, 10 ambulances were delivered to the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, and eight to the Palestinian Red Crescent, to support Gaza's crippled health system. The vehicles were the latest donations to reach Gaza from UAE organisations since the 22-day Israeli offensive began just over a year ago. During the assault - which left almost 1,400 Palestinians dead and 5,000 wounded - millions of dirhams were raised in the UAE for the resulting humanitarian crisis.
The Red Crescent Authority (RCA), the UAE's primary humanitarian organisation, received more than Dh600 million (US$163m) in donations to purchase medicine, equipment, food and other necessities. Twelve months after the attacks began, however, the continued Israeli blockade continues to severely hamper humanitarian efforts. According to Dr al Taei, the RCA has been working to find ways around the restrictions.
"We are working in many ways," he said. "We find a window and we go through it. We don't stop, either by land, air, through Cairo or the West Bank. We have a team working day and night for Gaza and thinking about how to get things in. If there's no chance, we try to build the chance." Working with agencies on the ground including UNRWA, the Palestinian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and through co-ordination with the Egyptian Red Crescent, the RCA has been able to deliver some food, medicine and other items.
According to Dr al Taei, the RCA has given financial donations and has managed to get some items through the Rafah border during the rare opening periods. Some deliveries have been flown to Al Arish from Abu Dhabi and then driven the rest of the way in the Gaza Strip. During Ramadan, the organisation purchased 300 tonnes of food in Cairo and transported it overland to Rafah. Dr al Taei, a paediatrician, was among a five-member RCA team that travelled from the UAE to Gaza at the end of October. During the 10-day visit the team carried out 50 operations to correct hearing problems and provided hundreds of children with hearing aids.
"After the war, we had hundreds of appeals, mostly from families of children in Gaza who lost their hearing," Dr al Taei said. "We tried to help those children." Given the challenges involved in getting people out of Gaza, Dr al Taei said the organisation decided to try to get medical staff into the territory. As part of the November mission - the first since the end of the three-week assault - the team performed operations and brought in medicine and medical equipment and carried out training for some of the doctors, who are still in contact with the team.
They also brought in whatever items they could to be distributed to people there. The visit was Dr al Taei's third to Gaza, but his first after the war. "This time Gaza looked very sad," he said. "People feel like they don't have a chance - for students to study or to get medical help." In 2010, the RCA is planning at least two trips to Gaza, according to Dr al Taei - one focusing on ear, nose and throat treatments and another on open-heart surgeries.
The organisation is also trying to move young children with heart conditions from Gaza to Al Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem, which has a special paediatric-cardiac ward, as well as supporting a ICRC project to build an artificial limb factory in Gaza. "Gaza is very critical," he said. "Because of the situation there are huge needs and it's not easy to help. Everything is needed - food, clothes, medicine, humanitarian items."
Some 3,500 homes were destroyed during the war as well as infrastructure, factories and government buildings. According to the UN, there are still more than 160 families displaced and living in tents or makeshift shelters. After the war, the UAE pledged to rebuild more than 1,000 of the homes. But with building materials largely barred from entering the Gaza Strip, the rebuilding process has not been able to begin.
According to a report by a group of organisations including Oxfam and Amnesty International, only 41 truckloads of construction material have been allowed into Gaza since the end of the war last January 18. The RCA is also trying to work around this problem by buying what is available on the local market - items that are brought in "not by the normal ways", Dr al Taei said. "You have to pay double or triple the price," he said. "We can't just stop until the situation is quiet, especially as it is coming to winter and some people don't have proper shelter."
The RCA is also supporting a project to rebuild homes from mud brick. The blockade has impacted ongoing projects, including the 600-home development in southern Gaza known as Sheikh Khalifa City, which were started long before the war. But Dr al Taei said the organisation would not stop trying to get assistance into Gaza. "I want to give hope to people here that if you want to help Gaza you can bring even Dh1 to the RCA because we can get it in through our ways," he said. "There is a chance and there is a hope and we won't stop."