Robert Turner has been on the ground in some of the most difficult humanitarian crises in recent memory. He has managed refugee relief efforts in Burundi, Kosovo and Macedonia, where he supervised the feeding of the hungry, the construction of shelters and schools, and the provision of water, sanitation and health services. In his current role of directing operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, he wants to tell the world about the humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding in that section of Palestine.
Since 2007, the Gaza Strip, which is an area about two times the size of the District of Columbia, has effectively been cut off from the rest of the world. Its land borders with Israel and Egypt are guarded by walls, razor wire and armed soldiers, while its western coast has been effectively blockaded by Israeli naval forces. An extensive system of tunnels to Egypt once allowed some goods to come in and out, but the regime change in Cairo has terminated the practice. Now, the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million people sits on the brink of food insecurity and will soon be completely dependent on assistance. A huge percentage of these people are refugees, Palestinians who were displaced by war and violence between 1946 and 1948. Forty-one percent of these refugees are unemployed. For young people, the unemployment rate is 56%. Because they are not permitted to export goods, Gazans are able to do very little to help themselves. “Until the blockade is lifted and access to Gaza’s traditional markets — the West Bank and Israel — is secured,” Turner says, “any sustainable recovery of the local economy remains elusive. The vicious cycle of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency — and consequently the de-development of the Gaza Strip — will continue.”
The UN is doing what it can to help the people of Gaza, but financial resources are dwindling. Soon, difficult decisions will need to be made about who can be fed and who cannot.
Behind the politics — beyond all the posturing and negotiating and pontificating — are stories of people who are suffering in very real ways. Without a doubt, there are people in Gaza who want to do harm to Israelis. Hamas is in charge there. Rockets have been fired from there. But the vast majority of people in Gaza are simple, hardworking people who just want to work, to feed their families, and to give their children a future with hope. Robert Turner says that Gazans value education more than any other population he has ever seen. They want to better themselves. They want to create jobs, build opportunity, export goods and enjoy the simple right of economic self-determination that we take for granted.
The politics are complicated, but the human hopes are not.
Behind the politics, there are people… people who deserve a peace that is more than just the absence of violence.