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Did the Red Cross say there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

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"The Red Cross says there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, therefore the Gaza flotilla is a waste of time."

Comments much like this have been made by readers on stories I've written about the efforts of pro-Palestinian activists to symbolically run the Israeli blockade of Gaza in the past couple of weeks. They have also been a major piece of ammunition on the pro-Israel side of the "he said, she said" propaganda war that's been raging for weeks (which have also included a hoax video about a gay activist spurned by the flotilla and allegations that the activists were preparing to attack Israeli soldiers with sulfur, later refuted by Israeli lawmakers.)

The Gaza flotilla this year was defeated by successful Israeli diplomacy, which persuaded Greece to prevent the boats from leaving its ports. Most of the European and American activists participating have begun trickling home. They say their effort was about more than a "humanitarian crisis," that the overall burden on Gaza's people is too great because they don't have any control over how to get goods in or out.

But is the assertion that there is "no humanitarian crisis" true? Well, sort of. In April, Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman Rotem Caro Weizman published a piece on the IDF website that detailed an interview with "Mathilde Redmatn," the deputy director of the Red Cross in Gaza headlined "Red Cross Official: There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza".

Ms. Weizman wrote: "Redmatn has a lot to say about problems related to the closure Israel has placed on Gaza but she also talks about the surprising normalcy in one of the most explosive regions of the world that receives extensive media attention. 'There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza,' she explains. 'If you go to the supermarket, there are products. There are restaurants and a nice beach. The problem is mainly in maintenance of infrastructure and in access to goods, concrete for example.'"

(There are in fact nice restaurants in Gaza and a few good supermarkets. But they generally cater to foreign aid workers, journalists, and rich Gazans, some of whom are members of a proto-mafia class that has grown rich thanks to control of smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border. For average residents, they're out of reach).

The article goes on to quote the Red Cross official (whose real name is Mathilde de Riedmatten) as saying: "Israel has the legitimate right to protect the civilian population, this right should be balanced with the rights of 1.5 million people living in the Gaza Strip. Despite the easing of the closure and the partial lifting of export bans in the wake of the flotilla incident, continued restrictions on the movement of people and difficulties in importing building materials hampered sustainable economic recovery and dashed any hope of leading a normal and dignified life."

In this context the "no humanitarian crisis" means that people in Gaza aren't starving, which is certainly true. The United Nation's Relief and Works Agency provides aid to most of Gaza's 1.5 million people, and has been allowed to bring in food and medical supplies. The Red Cross and other aid groups are active as well.

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But according to ICRC spokeswoman Cecilia Goin, the situation remains dire and the Red Cross views the blockade on Gaza by Israel as the principal cause. Ms. Goin says the earlier interview with Riedmatten did not include the full context provided by her colleague, and created the understanding "that since there’s no evidence that there’s a humanitarian crisis that everything was OK." Far from it, Goin says.

Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, she says there are still severe shortages of concrete and other basic building materials in the Strip due to Israel's control of shipping and that "exports are almost nonexistent." She says that most families who lost homes during Israel's 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead offensive in Gaza, in which roughly 1,400 Palestinians died, have still not been able to rebuild because of material shortages. While UNRWA and the Red Cross can get permission to bring in building materials for specific projects of their own, she says it's very difficult to bring in material like cement for the general market or for many Palestinian Authority projects.

"If you contact the UN, there are several projects they are doing for water and sanitation, and if they get the green light for materials, it’s for those specific projects." But even when they have permission, the supplies often come in insufficient installments, delaying projects.

The local government is run by Hamas, which Israel says will rain rockets upon them if the blockade is eased up because more weapons will slip into the territory. Some Israeli officials like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have also suggested the blockade be maintained as a form of collective punishment to keep pressure on Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held there for five years now. Hamas has ignored both ICRC and Israeli petitions to allow Red Cross visits with the soldier.

"Israeli officials have confirmed to Embassy officials on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis," the US Embassy in Tel Aviv wrote in 2008, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

In practice that means poorer sanitation and delays in medical treatment that many blame for the death of ailing Gazans.

"The infrastructure is quite damaged, which is a problem particularly in water and sanitation," says Goin. "For example, every day thousands of liters of untreated sewage is dumped into the Wadi Gaza River, which is a major health problem. Local water authorities want to repair and improve water and sanitation in the Gaza Strip, but if you can’t access building materials then you can't do it."

She says that the main hospital in Gaza remains chronically short of spare parts for its machines, which means they're frequently off-line, since Israel controls imports. While the Red Cross can get permissions to bring in a part when a machine breaks, that takes time. Likewise, Palestinians who are sufficiently sick are allowed to travel to Israel for care, but getting travel permission is likewise an involved process. (I wrote about the chronic medical problems in Gaza and shortages on my last visit there in January 2008.)

To be sure, after the Gaza flotilla last year, in which eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American were killed trying to enter Gaza, Israel eased some restrictions on goods crossing from its side of the border. This year after the Egyptian revolution, Cairo reduced its participation in the blockade. Egypt has partially opened its Rafah crossing with Gaza, but only to foot traffic, not to goods.

In a May interview, Ms. Riedmatten – the Red Cross official quoted in the original IDF piece on the humanitarian situation in Gaza – had this to say:

"Gaza is more dependent than ever on outside aid. For young people – fully 50 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are under 18 years of age – there is a crushing lack of prospects," she said. "The strict limits on imports and the almost absolute ban on exports imposed by Israel make economic recovery impossible... The entry of goods into Gaza is also still highly restricted, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the particular items allowed. Long delays are frequent. Some goods that are allowed in are so expensive that their availability hardly matters to the vast majority of the population, who could never afford them... Imports of construction supplies and raw materials are still mostly banned, even though they are vital to the territory's infrastructure and economic recovery."

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.


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