Palestine: "What we really need is dignity"

It is exactly six months now that a ceasefire put an end to 51 days of war in the Gaza Strip. I am sitting with Jabber Wishah in his garden, a few kilometers south of Gaza City. We are watching the stars in the sky as we talk. “The main problem is normalization”, Jabber sighs, “people are starting to regard the situation here in Gaza as normal. Both you Europeans and the people in Gaza themselves.”
What is internationally accepted, does not seem to be valid for the Palestinians

Jabber is not just anyone. He is the vice-director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a respected human rights organization. He spent 15 years in an Israeli prison because of his political activism. His daughter, who introduced us, was only a baby when her father was placed behind bars. I was expecting a confrontation with a seasoned freedom fighter, but the man in front of me has soft eyes and a voice full of melancholy. He has seen too much suffering to maintain his combativeness.

Jabber’s daughter works for the organization that invited me to Gaza. The Union of Health Work Committees is the biggest local non-governmental health organization in the Gaza Strip. I am here to discuss ways of improving the disastrous humanitarian situation with them. It is, to say the least, quite a challenge.

We know the statistics. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without a home. Unemployment is steadily rising towards 50%. Sixty percent of the population are living below the poverty line. Daily interruptions in power supply can last up to 18 hours. Four hundred thousand children urgently require psychosocial treatment.

Dr. Mahmoud Daher, head of the WHO in Gaza, is trying to coordinate health care. When I met him earlier that day, he was full of praise on the local NGO’s work. At the same time, he sees the situation deteriorate. “It is an ongoing crisis situation”, he explained, “and access to health care is problematic.” The public sector’s health staff have not been paid in over a year. While the population increases, health care services are being reduced. During the last war alone, 60 health facilities were destroyed or damaged. One in five patients needing to go abroad for treatment do not get authorization to leave the Gaza Strip.

“In this open-air prison all aspects of health are under pressure”, Dr. Daher said in uncharacteristically sharp terms for a UN representative. Drinking water is becoming increasingly problematic. People spend their income on housing, food, water and health. There is nothing left for anything else. “This affects their dignity and brings frustration, humiliation, stress and depression”, he concluded. These are all elements included in the internationally recognized WHO definition of health.
But what is internationally accepted, does not seem to be valid for the Palestinians. Despite the modalities of the ceasefire, frontiers remain as good as closed. Of the 5.4 billion dollars in funding promised for reconstruction by the international community, less than 3% has actually been paid. The UN have been forced to stop a number of vital programs due to lack of funding.

One high representative of the United Nations summarized this absurd situation for me with this example: “With the money we have spent on fuel for our generators since the war, we could have easily built a new power station if we would only be allowed to import the construction materials.”

On our visits to the neighborhoods that have been bombed six months ago, we can see the frustration in the eyes of the locals. In the areas of Beit Hanoun, Shujaiyeh, and Khan Younis, closest to the Israeli border, virtually no debris has been removed. People there are still living in school buildings, in containers or simply between the remains of buildings.

During our mission, we have met brave Palestinian doctors determined to support their people. “Those 51 days of war were horrible and I was not sure I would survive”, Dr. Mona El Farra told me. “Of course we were relieved to see it come to an end, but six months on we see no improvement in the situation, none at all.” She distinguishes two types of war crimes: “There have been attacks on civilians but there is also the fact the international community tolerates 1.8 million people continuing to suffer from the occupation and the embargo.

Dr. Aed Yaghi analyzed the situation in medical terms: “It is a humanitarian syndrome but the underlying disease is political. We need humanitarian aid, but the disease cannot be eradicated without bringing the occupation to an end.”
In an attempt to provide words of hope, I tell Jabber about the resolution on the recognition of Palestine, passed in the federal chamber last month. I choose not to tell him this resolution also stipulates recognition will only be a fact “at the most convenient moment”, meaning “whenever Israel would agree on it”. I realize all of this is of little to no comfort to these people.

“A recognition…”, Jabber shrugs his shoulders, “ what we really need is dignity. It all comes down to being able to lead a life with respect for our dignity.” The international community will first need to accept that a continuous occupation and embargo are not “normal”, and that Palestinian are people with rights. If I see that our parliament makes the even symbolic recognition of Palestine dependable on an agreement of Israel, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.