Has the World Abandoned Gaza? Region Remains in Ruins a Year After Deadly Israeli Assault

StoryJuly 08, 2015
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Mohammed Omer

award-winning Palestinian journalist reporting in Gaza City. His book, Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault, has just been published.

Image Credit: Reuters

As Gaza marks one year since the launch of Israel’s devastating 50-day assault, it remains in a state of crisis. The assault killed 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. A year later, none of the 12,000 homes destroyed in Gaza have been rebuilt, in part due to the ongoing Israeli blockade. The World Bank is warning the Gaza economy is on the verge of collapse. Overall unemployment now stands at 43 percent — the highest in the world. We speak with Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer, author of "Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Gaza, which remains in a state of crisis one year after the launch of Israel’s 50-day war. It was the third in Gaza in six years. Twenty-two hundred Palestinians, including 550 children, died. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers. The attack destroyed 12,000 homes in Gaza. Another 100,000 were damaged. None of the destroyed homes have been rebuilt so far, due in part to the ongoing Israeli blockade. Channel 4 News in Britain has just posted drone footage showing how much of Gaza is still in ruins. A recent United Nations report found, quote, "serious violations of international humanitarian law" which "may amount to war crimes" by both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants during the assault.

AMY GOODMAN: The World Bank is warning the Gaza economy is on the verge of collapse. Overall unemployment now stands at 43 percent—the highest in the world. Sixty-eight percent of Gazans aged between 20 and 24 are unemployed. Two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are now recipients of U.N. aid in one form or another. To mark the anniversary of the war, UNICEF has just released video featuring a 12-year-old girl named Malak who survived last year’s attack.

MALAK: [translated] The doors are gone. The windows are gone. The walls—it’s as if we’re living on the street. It’s been a year since the war, and there’s still not enough water, not enough electricity. We’ll stay here because we have nowhere to go. I have nightmares every night. It wasn’t like that before the war. I want to become an engineer, so I can rebuild people’s homes, our house, our neighbor’s house, so I can help people, and they can be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Gaza City, where we’re joined by Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. He is author of a new book, Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault. He is past winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

It’s great to have you with us, Mohammed. Talk about this first anniversary of the assaults. Where does Gaza stand today, where you’re standing?

MOHAMMED OMER: Thank you, Amy.

Well, in Gaza, today we mark the first anniversary of the war last summer, the 51-day war, which resulted in the killing of 2,250 Palestinians. The majority of them are civilians. Gaza is still living the same situation as right after the war and during the war. The only thing that we don’t have, Israeli F-16s overhead flying, and we don’t have the Israeli drones flying overhead. But we still have a lot of damages that are caused as a result of the war, and nothing have been fixed. Not one single home have been built after the war. Gaza is still struggling to survive. People are still struggling to get back to—to pick their lives from the beginning. Shejaiya, where I was just yesterday talking to people, they are still living in ruins. Some people are still living in prefabricated houses, and nothing has changed on the ground, really. The wound is still here.

The international community support to the people of Gaza is close to nonexistent, unfortunately. The people of Gaza are hoping that there will be some moves by the Palestinian Authority to take Israel into the International Criminal Court in The Hague. We don’t know if this is going to be happening anytime soon.

But the spirit of the Gazans is quite strong today, I would say, despite the fact that they are now mourning those that they have lost, and they are remembering the days of the war and the agony the days that they have lived during the month of Ramadan just last year, when Israel bombed the Gaza Strip for 51 days.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mohammed, what about—why has there been no rebuilding taking place? What have been the obstacles to that?

MOHAMMED OMER: The United Nations have installed a U.N. reconstruction of Gaza mechanism. This mechanism has not been working really properly. The only thing we get is a few bags of cement for people who need to build their homes. But only the people who had partial homes that have been destroyed, they could fix these damages, and that’s not enough. For example, if someone had lost a living room, and then he wants to fix that, he is given only a few bags of cement and a few tanks of gravel and not so much of steel, which Israel does not allow into the Gaza Strip. That’s difficult. There are so many shortages of supplies, construction materials, that Israel is not allowing into the Gaza Strip, therefore this is slowing the process of the Gaza reconstruction.

That’s not only that, also aid distribution to the people. There are shortages of aid all the past year. And people are still living in very dire conditions, particularly in parts of the east of Gaza City and east of Rafah and east of Khan Younis and east of the northern part of the Gaza Strip, where people are still living on either ruins of demolished homes or refabricated homes. As I said, the international community has failed to deliver aid. It has failed to convince the state of Israel to allow construction materials into the Gaza Strip.

There has been, of course, some materials that got into the Gaza Strip. The only thing that people who have no means to build their homes, they end up selling their cement in the black market, because they want to survive, because they find that it’s more important that they get some food on the table and not necessarily to have a shelter over their heads.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, if the camera crew there could give you a hand mic? The wind is hitting your microphone sometimes, so it’s sort of—it’s making it a little hard to hear what you’re saying. But I wanted to ask about you—where you’re living right now. Your reports from Gaza last year were chilling. Are you continuing to live in Gaza?

MOHAMMED OMER: Yes, I am continuing to live in Gaza, and Gaza is my home. Gaza is where I’m living. Gaza is where I will stay. I don’t have anywhere else that I want to go, even though I am lucky enough that I have got the Dutch nationality. I could be traveling outside and living outside, but I choose to be here and to tell the story of my people, to tell the story of the people in Gaza and to document what’s happened, because the spirit of the Gazan people needs people who are able to tell the story in a very honest way. I don’t rely on international journalists to come only there in the Gaza Strip seasonal, when there is blood and when there is destruction. But there is also a lot of steadfastness and beautiful things in Gaza that we need to focus on. The spirit of the Gazans is something which I am very proud of and I want to continue as a Palestinian journalist to report on and to reflect on. This is something which I find extremely important, especially after seeing the life of people in Gaza and how much they have suffered. Still, they are living under a very good circumstances despite all the obstacles, because they simply have the good spirits to continue their life and not to give up to the depression around them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the U.N.’s refugee aid agency in Gaza. The director, Robert Turner, is leaving, and sometime this month. Last week, in an interview about his tenure in Gaza, he said housing reconstruction in the area could begin soon.

ROBERT TURNER: Finally, last week, the minister of public works and housing announced that technical issues related to total reconstruction had been resolved, that there now would be what’s called the residential stream for the Gaza reconstruction mechanism, which would allow for the reconstruction of homes. We immediately, the next day, submitted the first batch of names of refugee families that had been identified, had their building permits ready and their building designs ready. Those were approved yesterday. And we’re signing undertakings, and we’re trying to put money in their pockets next week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Robert Turner, who’s leaving as director of the U.N.’s refugee aid agency in Gaza. Your response?

MOHAMMED OMER: Well, I don’t know what we really are expecting from the international community. I have a great respect for Mr. Robert Turner, who has done a great job running the UNRWA operations in the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still living under the most difficult circumstances. As I said, you know, the international community is not really able to convince Israel. I mean, one year, we have received a lot of promises that people will be receiving construction materials into the Gaza Strip, but so far people are fed up. It’s been one year and only promises that we are receiving. So, why did this promise come only now, after a year? It’s only after a year after the destruction of Gaza and the war and the damages that are caused.

People have survived a very dreadful winter in the different parts of the Gaza Strip, simply because they don’t have the proper housing. Have we seen what happened in Shejaiya refugee camp and areas where they—that sustained several rockets and missiles? Did we see how much the children suffered the cold weather and winter? Why the international community allowed the people to survive that long? And now we are saying that Israel is going to be improving this.

People on the ground, they don’t trust that Israel is going to improve the situation at all. I don’t see this is going to be changing, unless there is more international pressure on Israel to allow construction materials into the Gaza Strip. The U.N. mechanism is unfortunately failing to deliver what is needed to the Palestinians in Gaza, because the U.N. is simply not able to convince the state of Israel of the importance of rebuilding the Gaza. When Palestinians having no homes and there is no hope, what do you expect? I mean, there is no hope, really.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, we only have a minute to go, and I wanted to ask you about the Islamic State issuing a warning to Hamas that they’re going to take over Gaza. How real is this?

MOHAMMED OMER: This is not real. It’s not going to happen, because I believe and many people believe that Hamas is much stronger on the ground than the Islamic State, those people who have issued this. I have talked to Hamas officials, and they informed me that those people have a psycho distress, and they are people who do not know what they are talking about. They are just a bunch of people who are not necessarily able to translate what they have said on the ground. I believe Hamas is much stronger on the ground, that the Islamic State cannot turn Gaza into al-Yarmouk, as the Islamic State said. That’s one.

And I believe also that the environment in Gaza does not allow an Islamic State-like groups to spread in the Gaza Strip. People don’t want this type of mentality in the Gaza Strip. We have seen that across the Gaza Strip. People who are supporting the Islamic State, they have received resistance from people and from the Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip. So this is something which I doubt is going to be happening anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Omer, we have to leave it there.

MOHAMMED OMER: The Gazans are still continuing—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, award-winning Palestinian journalist, reporting in Gaza City. His book, Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault, has just been published. He tweets at the handle @Mogaza.

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