Interview with Magda Ninaber

Humanitarian Voices Interview with Magda Ninaber, senior DARA evaluator.

Question: What is the humanitarian situation like in the Gaza Strip and in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories? What are your main concerns?
Magda Ninaber:
The situation in the Gaza Strip is like no other crisis, it is very different from those crises we know that produce the large tented camps in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a humanitarian crisis that has been created artificially, and that exists as a result of a political conflict. Israel closed access to and from the strip in 2007, and led a devastating three-week military operation from late December 2008 through January 2009 that killed more than 1,300 people and damaged or destroyed 15,000 houses. In the rest of the oPt, which is the West Bank including East Jerusalem, there is a long-lasting crisis in which Palestinians have to deal with constant harassment and violations of their basic human rights, with their mobility becoming more and more limited. Looking at the oPt as a whole, we are facing a unique crisis to which the world responds generously in material terms, helping to keep the population alive for so many years, but without much of an impact on the people’s freedom.

Q: In its 2009 HRI crisis report on the oPt, DARA found severe access problems due to a highly politicized international response. Have there been any changes in this regard one year later?
I wish I could give you a positive answer, but unfortunately access has not improved at all. Gaza’s borders are sealed, with only one transit point for supplies in the south, close to the border with Egypt, and the Erez crossing for human transit, for which permits are needed. Meanwhile, the construction of the barrier separating East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank from Israel continues relentlessly. Only the most basic humanitarian supplies of food, medicines and fuel are allowed in to Gaza, but not even the simplest construction materials for the emergency repair of buildings and basic infrastructure can enter through legal channels. If it were not for the underground tunnel structure and the international relief aid, the people would be experiencing a slow but certain death. Gaza’s population is not allowed to export its modest production of flowers and fruit, so there are hardly any sources of income. A number of donors apply a ‘no-contact policy’ with Hamas; they make implementing agencies promise that they will make sure that no part of the aid will benefit Hamas and that they will not have any dealings with Hamas officials, so the aid to Gaza remains largely politicised. Immediately after the military operation in Gaza, a number of donors funded NGOs directly, but now they are channelling their funding once again through the Palestinian Authority, thus jeopardising their own impartiality in aid.

Q: Aid agencies are constantly blaming Israel for breaking International Humanitarian Law (IHL). After the HRI mission to the oPt, what are your views on this issue?
Yes, this is the reality. Israel is to be blamed for violating International Humanitarian Law, but it is not the only guilty party in the crisis as long as Fatah (the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas do not settle their internal conflict. Israel is solely to be blamed for blocking entry of goods into Gaza, but it is often the Palestinian Authority that refuses to clear the requests for transit, so some of them do not even reach the Israeli authorities for clearance. Advocacy by the donor community for protection of the population and respect for IHL and human rights is critically falling short, probably because donors fear reprisals from Israel and want to avoid harming their bilateral relations and interests beyond the purely humanitarian sphere. A number of donors advocate for access for their own humanitarian assistance and workers, in most cases with success, but these are subject to extensive administrative procedures and checks, causing considerable delays and adding to costs.

Q: What should donors do to ensure greater respect for fundamental humanitarian principles in the oPt? what are your views on this issue?
Several donors are quite active in advocating for respect for humanitarian principles and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and see this as a priority in their response, at the risk of damaging their relationship with the government of Israel and the conflicting Palestinian parties. But it is simply not enough. If the international donor community is not ready to speak with one voice and consistently hammer the issues or come up with sanction-like steps, there will be no end to the violations of basic humanitarian principles, and Palestinians will continue to be harassed. As an example, Israel constantly changes the rules without any advance notice, which means that from one day to the next, people no longer have the necessary permits to move between their places of work and residence.

Q: DARA describes the situation in Gaza as a de-development process. Can you explain what that means concretely for the 1.5 million people living in the territory?
Although before this last major crisis the people of Gaza had already long been suffering restrictions on their movement and access, they were quite well established and educated, and assistance could be provided to those who really needed it without too much hindrance. But since the blockade of 2007, the socio-economic conditions are deteriorating quite rapidly. Unemployment has gone up from 30% in 2007 to 40% at the end of last year, which means that family income has decreased because there is also a ban on exports. More families have become dependent on food aid, and basic services such as water, sanitation and health care are getting worse because materials to repair the systems are not allowed in through the formal way. The limited amount of fuel that comes in from Israel costs about four times as much as the fuel that comes in through the tunnels. What this means in day-to-day life is that there are more people in the streets, looking for a way to earn a buck, and that there is more dependence on the tunnels to bring goods in.

Q: What are the main recommendations to donors after this mission?
Donors should speak with one common voice and they should have the courage to issue strong, joint statements and initiatives towards the authorities in charge. When we were in the oPt, Israel’s announcement of a plan to build 1,600 new houses on occupied Palestinian land in East Jerusalem caused an international outcry at the highest levels, including from the UN Secretary-General. Now, just one month later, those voices are silent despite the fact that Israel still insists that the construction will take place. This makes the creation of a Palestinian state more and more difficult, as little or no land remains for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Donors should be consistent in their approach and make sure that agencies can implement activities on the basis of the needs of all people, according to the humanitarian principle of neutrality, and irrespective of their political affiliation. Donors should continue to find ways to better coordinate their response and they should not avoid contact with Hamas, but rather engage their more moderate officials in negotiations that focus on humanitarian needs. Each side, not just Israeli forces but also the Palestinians, should refrain from any form of retaliation so that this negative spiral can come to an end.

Q: What does the future look like for the Gaza Strip and the rest of oPt? Have you seen any positive signs of progress?
The future for most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the rest of the oPt looks very grim, with no respite of any sort in sight as long as the Gaza border remains closed and as long as there is a barrier separating the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Israel and basically the rest of the world. The population in the West Bank has some freedom of movement east of the barrier but is restricted to using the “fabric-of-life roads that were specifically built by Israel to connect the villages east of the barrier with Ramallah, the main commercial centre in the West Bank. But even there, Palestinians face humiliations on a daily basis. Palestinian registered vehicles or other forms of transport used by Palestinians are not allowed on the highway built by Israel on Palestinian land to connect the illegal Israeli settlements to Jerusalem and beyond. We were slightly hopeful that international pressure would make the conflicting Palestinian parties sit at the table, come closer to an internal agreement and reach a unified position. This would then make it possible to have a basis for the resumption of peace talks. I just heard that through quiet diplomacy the parties may have agreed to resume indirect negotiations, the proximity talks, and it is important that the Arab leaders continue to support Palestinian representatives in their work towards peaceful settlement.