Opinion

More Palestinians Will Die Unless Gaza Becomes Livable

Open Gaza to weaken Hamas. Lift the blockade, properly fund UNRWA, rehabilitate Gaza's infrastructure - these are the only ways we can prevent the desperation of protestors willing to lose their lives

A Palestinian man sells drinking water in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, April 16, 2016
AP / Khalil Hamra

Over the past six weeks, nearly 100 men, women, and children have been killed in the protests along Gaza’s border with Israel. Over 11,000 more have been injured. One thing is absolutely certain about the latest crisis in Gaza – the status quo is failing.

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As a sitting Congressman and a physician, our work has collectively taken us to Gaza more than five times. We’ve seen firsthand the devastation and poverty that the siege on Gaza has wrought.

The humanitarian situation is extremely grave. Only those who have little to lose would willingly approach the border with Israel, knowing they are likely to be injured or killed.

At the same time, the situation is complex and there is much blame to share. All of the major players have made decisions and taken steps to enhance their own interests while most of the almost two million Palestinians who live in Gaza are powerless victims caught in the middle.

It is important to remember that Israel has real security interests at stake in Gaza. Hamas has an arsenal of rockets and missiles, as well as sophisticated tunnels that threaten Israeli civilians. Likewise, we must remember that Hamas is exploiting the desperation of their own people in an attempt to inject violence into the border demonstrations.

But that does not justify using live fire against unarmed protesters or blockading the entire population for years on end.

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Any serious attempt at peace between Israel and Palestine must start with fully funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that provides humanitarian assistance, food, health care, education and emergency assistance to Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Because President Trump has frozen U.S. payments to UNRWA, UNRWA can’t guarantee it will be able to provide schooling to the more than 272,000 children in Gaza when the next school year begins in August. UNRWA also can’t guarantee that it can continue to run its health centers in Gaza, which serve more than 1.3 million refugees. In addition, emergency interventions, like food assistance, are also at risk of being suspended or dramatically scaled down

Even Israeli security officials advocate for UNRWA funding because they see it as important to Israel’s security and well-being. UNRWA provides the basic stability needed for a peace deal to be negotiated. 

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But the latest crisis in Gaza cannot be resolved just by funding UNRWA. There are also the energy and water crises that must be dealt with. Gazans survive on as little as four hours of electricity per day, which disrupts basic services such as water and sanitation services. Due to the lack of energy, Gaza’s facilities that could help reduce the sewage aren’t running near capacity. More than 100 million liters, the equivalent of 40 Olympic-size swimming pools, of raw sewage enters the Mediterranean Sea daily and contaminates both Gaza’s beaches and Israel’s coastal cities.

In addition, nearly two-thirds of Gazans have no running water and up to 97 percent of the running water in Gaza is too polluted to drink. This humanitarian crisis could easily devolve into a serious public health crisis, like a cholera epidemic, that political borders cannot contain. Israel and the Palestinian authority must work together to ensure sufficient energy and water flows to Gaza.

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We believe that the status quo is unsustainable – the blockade on Gaza, which Israel and Egypt have maintained for nearly 12 years, needs to change. The blockade has devastated Gaza’s economy and private sector: unemployment is 43.6 percent. Gaza’s youth are particularly devastated, with around 65 percent unemployed and few opportunities to build careers. The supply of food and consumer goods allowed to enter Gaza following inspection should be significantly increased to meet the population's most basic needs.

Real change can only be created by opening Gaza to the outside world, which must be done carefully with the full participation of the Palestinian, Egyptian, and Israeli authorities. Crossing points must be secured and the tunnels should be destroyed. The possibility of constructing a port for Gaza should also be explored. These actions would weaken Hamas’s ability to strike at Israel and diminish Hamas’ resources, while also mitigating some of the desperation among the residents of Gaza. 

The way things are now, additional tragic loss of life is almost guaranteed.  The international community must take action.

Rep. Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives

Carol Hutner Winograd, M.D. is a member of J Street’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors