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Humanitarians at risk: interview with ECHO expert in Palestine

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This post is part of our 'Humanitarians at risk' series, dedicated to World Humanitarian Day which will take place on 19 of August. The series features testimonies of humanitarians around the world who risk their lives daily, while saving those of others. World Humanitarian Day is our opportunity to recognise the personal sacrifice made by humanitarian professionals and pay tribute to those who were injured or killed while doing their job.

As hostilities between Israel and the Gaza strip recently escalated in July 2014, they also highlighted the dangers and consequences of working in conflict. We spoke with our colleague Christophe Gadrey, a Technical Assistant in Palestine at the Jerusalem office of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) to share his experiences in the region and discuss the impetus of improving access and security for aid workers. The hostilities led to an exponential increase in civilian casualties and mass displacement of more than 240 000 people. Critical infrastructure, including hospitals, health centres, and schools have been severely damaged or destroyed.


What is the current situation in Gaza, given the most recent developments?

"What is happening in Gaza today is at the brink of a public health humanitarian crisis. The international humanitarian community has already reached a breaking point where its assistance capacities cannot cope with the scale of the crisis anymore. Indeed, there has been a steep increase in displacements; numbers continue to grow every day. The living conditions of these people are appalling: limited access to water and sanitation, no electricity. People are packed in too few shelters. On average, each shelter hosts 2 500 people, with often more than 70 persons per classroom.

On top of these dire living conditions, people live every day with the fear for their children and families of being attacked and killed. They are in the middle of a battlefield where nothing and nobody can really protect them."

Recently, humanitarian facilities have been under attack. How difficult is it to deliver aid in this conflict situation?

"Currently, providing assistance to people in Gaza is extremely challenging. Most of the international NGOs which would be ready to assist are prevented access to people in need due to security conditions. Delivering aid is very difficult and very dangerous. Over the last three weeks, the humanitarian operational capacity of our partners has therefore been very limited. Our two employees based in Gaza, Saber and Majed, are currently hostages in their houses. The security threat for them and their family is such that they cannot carry out their normal work activities.   

Some international organisations have been able to carry out operations. These include UN agencies like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the World Food Programme (WFP), as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (ICRC), which have a solid presence in Gaza with thousands of staff. This has made it possible for them to continue their assistance to people in need even under these conditions. These organisations are among our humanitarian partners and receive EU funds to support their on-going relief operations."

What is the situation in terms of security for humanitarian workers?

"According to recent reports, eight aid workers from UNRWA have lost their life in the first 23 days of conflict. No one can feel safe in Gaza today. International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which is meant to protect civilians and humanitarians during conflicts, is violated on a daily basis. UN-run shelters, hospitals, water facilities,… have been seriously damaged following attacks recently.

But it is not only humanitarian staff who risk their lives.  Local organisations or authorities delivering public services put their life in danger constantly to assist the population. In the current situation, simply repairing a water pump or evacuating wounded people has been a death sentence for some workers."

What should be done to improve humanitarian access to victims and security?

"Countries need to reinforce their calls for respect of IHL. They need to speak louder and ensure that the IHL provisions such as safe and unimpeded access to affected population are respected by all parties to the conflict.

But I strongly believe that while providing assistance now is a humanitarian imperative, this is, in any case, not what would bring the necessary changes to the long isolation which people in Gaza have suffered from. Over the last seven years, the blockade which is imposed on the Gaza population prevents people from enjoying their basic rights and lead normal lives as I do with my family. This blockade needs to be removed. There must be an end to this collective punishment."

Liza Drius
Communication Officer
European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)

To honour and thank humanitarians ahead of this year's World Humanitarian Day, join us and tweet your personal message, using: #Ihonour

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