Gazans Brace for Cold, Bleak, and Miserable Winter

EZBT ABBED RABBO – Tens of thousands of Gazans living in tents and damaged homes face a wet, cold, and miserable winter as Israel’s blockade of the coastal territory continues to prevent the importation of building and reconstruction material.

During the last few weeks, Gazans were given a brief reprieve from the oncoming winter as an unseasonable snap of warmish, sunny weather held off winter rain and plummeting temperatures.

But during a tour of northern Gaza last week, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Maxwell Gaylard, and the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) called on Israel to open its border crossings immediately to avert a further deterioration in the humanitarian situation on the ground.

"With winter rains and cold weather now imminent, the people of Gaza are even more desperately in need of construction materials such as cement, roofing tiles, and glass to build and repair homes destroyed and damaged during the Israeli military offensive of 2008/2009," said Gaylard.

During Israel’s intensive bombing campaign in December/January, Gaza’s infrastructure was heavily targeted leading to the destruction and damage of thousands of homes.

"Gaza urgently requires 268,000 square meters of glass for windows and 67,000 square meters of glass for solar water heaters or enough glass to cover more than 30 football pitches. More than 500 children are still living in tents," Mike Bailey from Oxfam told IPS.

Damage caused to Gaza’s water, sanitation, and electricity systems, exacerbated by Israel’s crippling blockade, which forbids the import of most essential spare parts and fuel, has further limited the ability of aid agencies to supply essential services.

The lack of concrete water-storage tanks means that fresh water can only enter water pipes when there is electricity to power water pumps. Backup generators – which rely on fuel – are needed to ensure power cuts do not lead to water shortages and pollution of water.

"The humanitarian situation is going to deteriorate if something doesn’t give," Gaylard told IPS during a tour of the Ezbt Abbed Rabbo area of the northern Gaza strip.

"We are reaching out to the international community. We are appealing to the member countries of the UN on a regular basis about this continuing crisis. … We are holding discussions with the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. One would hope that the message would be getting out after the Goldstone report," said Gaylard.

"We are continuing talks with the Israeli government but pressure must be brought to bear on those responsible for keeping the border crossings closed," Gaylard told IPS.

Fifty meters away from where the media gathered to hear the UN coordinator address the escalating humanitarian crisis, dozens of Gazan families were living the crisis firsthand.

Muhammad Zaid’s five-story home – which took four years to build and was home to 16 people, the youngest a 1-year-old – was flattened during 15 days of intensive Israeli shelling at the beginning of the year, forcing the family to flee.

For the first five months after the war, Zaid and his family lived under the caved-in bottom floor of the building. For the last five months, the Zaids have lived in a tent supplied by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Despite the recent unusually warm and dry weather, the heavens opened up for one night last week and rainwater flooded their tent as the family desperately tried to salvage belongings.

"We were awake the whole night scooping water out and trying to dig a small ditch around the tent to prevent more water flooding in, but it didn’t help. The children were terrified and screaming. It was so cold," Zaid told IPS.

However, when the winter rains begin to flood his tent on a regular basis in the near future Zaid, who is unemployed and in huge debt, will face the additional problems of having only intermittent electricity and no running water.

"I have spent over $3,000 of borrowed money for a new refrigerator and stove and some other basic appliances, but we have no heater and the electricity keeps cutting," said Zaid.

Several kilometers away, near the border with Israel, mother of eight Taghreed Abu Amrayn showed IPS her new "home," a tent attached to the remains of her former three-story house, as she jiggled 20-month-old Safedin on her hip.

"I’m not sure how we will cope with winter as heating and electricity are a big problem and the children are always getting sick. I think the phosphorous bombs that were dropped nearby may have affected them. Apart from the health issues, we still live in fear on a daily basis as Israel continues to bomb these areas," Amrayn told IPS.

Near the Abu Amrayns, Rifat Bakri, 28, and Wissam Amoud, 27, were using improvisation to try and overcome the absence of construction material. They had "rebuilt" their former garage and mechanical workshop with cardboard boxes.

"We couldn’t just sit around, we needed to get back to work. These boxes have provided a provisional garage for the short-term, but when it rains in winter they will become water-logged and I’m not sure what we will do then," Bakri told IPS.

"This abysmal situation can’t continue. People are desperate. Enough is enough. It is time for the blockade to be ended and for humanity to return to Gaza," Bailey told IPS.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.