GAZA CITY // The United Nations food distribution centre inside Gaza City's Beach refugee camp is a hive of activity. On a recent, dreary December morning on the Mediterranean Sea, UN workers doused in flour shout out names of aid recipients, ferrying sacks of rice, powdered milk and other essential items out of the cramped warehouse and into the hands of the impoverished. One year after a blistering Israeli offensive that killed almost 1,400 Palestinians and wounded 5,000, the international aid agencies' mammoth relief efforts in the Gaza Strip are frozen in time.
A potent combination of Israel's continued economic blockade on the territory and the reluctance of donor governments to issue funds for development projects in Gaza is keeping the embattled enclave in a near-permanent state of assistance, aid workers here say. "What Gaza is now is just a Petri dish of an economy, based entirely on relief," said Martha Myer, the Israel-Palestine country director for Care International. "And any type of serious development is impossible in an economy where people are increasingly reliant on assistance, particularly after attacks they have been completely unable to rebuild from."
Israel launched its military offensive on Gaza last winter in an effort it says was aimed at halting rocket-fire by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. With heavy bombardment from land, air and sea, not only did the assault cause large civilian casualties in Gaza, but also destroyed wide swathes of infrastructure. Aid organisations stepped up during and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks to address the growing humanitarian crisis, swiftly repairing damaged water-supply networks and distributing much-needed food and blankets to people displaced by the fighting.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said it estimated at least 120,000 people were temporarily displaced, and according to Gaza's housing ministry, 20,000 homes and buildings were either totally or partially destroyed. Now, with the attacks having pushed even more of Gaza's population to rely on assistance, at least 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people depend on food aid, said Anne Valand of the WFP Gaza field office.
"What we are doing right now is just k eeping people alive," Christer Nordahl, deputy director of operations at the United Nations Relief Works Agency in Gaza, said. "There is no human development whatsoever - and it's just not sustainable as such." Aid agencies say they are looking at ways to circumvent the crippling economic blockade, which allows in an average of between 90 to 110 of the 500 lorries needed to run Gaza normally each day.
In October, the WFP launched a food voucher programme for urban families, allowing them to purchase protein-rich foods in local markets, which in turn supports local shop-owners. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now using rubble created by the attacks to repair Gaza's notorious cesspools, some of which were also damaged in the fighting. The human rights group Amnesty International said Gaza's water supply and sewage networks sustained upwards of US$6 million (Dh22m) in damage during the offensive.
"But in the end, the projects we do, they are nothing given the scope of the problem," said the head of the ICRC in Gaza, Stephane Beytrison. "They are just drops of water in the ocean." Gaza needs the immediate ability to rehabilitate livelihoods on a territory-wide scale, Ms Valand said, as well as the capacity to properly repair and sustain both water supply networks, and a health system Ms Myer described as "hanging on by its hairs". At least 50,000 people are "still without suitable living quarters," according to Mr Nordahl's figures, and psychological trauma from the offensive runs high.
But the international community would be wrong to continue treating Gaza like it was struck by an earthquake or a tsunami, Mr Nordahl added. Gaza's humanitarian crisis, he contends, is a "man-made disaster". "If I'm a donor government issuing funds for the Gaza Strip, and I'm under enormous, pro-Israeli domestic pressure, it's a lot easier for me to just say: 'there's an emergency humanitarian situation in Gaza, let's give them water and medicine, and not even go there politically'," Ms Myer said.
"And that's where we are, one year after the war," she continued, "where governments are too timid to fund development activities that would allow Palestinians to stand up on their own two feet and keep them on their land." If the situation continues like this any longer, the international community will be looking at a Gaza more impoverished and therefore far more extreme than before, aid workers warn. Gaza's youthful population is growing increasingly frustrated, with no hope for the future.
"By keeping things the way they are, we are creating an extremist society in Gaza," Mr Nordahl said. "My question to the international community is: is this what we want? Of course not. But if at some point we don't reassess, instead of development aid, western nations are going to have to send peacekeeping troops, like in Afghanistan." email@example.com