The story made the
headlines across the Arab world. For three days, 14-year-old
Amira Al-Gerem’s name was on
the list of presumed dead in the district of Tel Al-Hawa,
in central Gaza City, after tank fire reduced her family’s
home to rubble, killing her father and two brothers instantly.
Amira was found injured on 17 January, the day before the
ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect, ending
their armed confrontation. The young girl had taken refuge
in a neighbouring apartment, abandoned by its occupants who,
like so many others, had been forced to flee the intensity
of the fighting.
Although she miraculously survived, Amira has not escaped
the war unscathed. She was rapidly operated on, and her bodily
injuries will heal. Her mother keeps vigil by her bedside.
She will be given a roof over her head, even if only temporarily.
But will she ever wipe from her memory the moment when she
had to climb over the lifeless bodies of her father and brothers
to get out of her house — or what was left of it?
Here in January 2009, Amira personifies in many respects
the Gaza Strip, ravaged by three weeks of unprecedented,
unremitting violence. In this conflict, there are no victors
and only one loser: the civilian population.
In the absence of independent information, it is difficult
to tell the war’s precise toll. According to figures
that the Gazan Health Ministry published at the end of January,
more than 1,380 people have been killed and 5,640 wounded.
One thing is sure, however: a particularly high proportion
of the victims were women and children.
The figure, sad and unacceptable though it is, is not entirely
surprising. The population of Gaza is almost oneand a half
million. Most of them are crammed into densely populated
urban areas. Conducting military operations in such a context
can only put civilians at enormous risk.
Traces of the conflict
Shijaya is one of the poorest districts in Gaza City. Here,
evidence of the conflict is everywhere. Barely a few days
after the end of hostilities and before the reopening of
schools, children once again throng the streets, their playground
of choice. Dozens run alongside PalestinianRed Crescent and
ICRC teams out and about to deliver urgently needed relief
goods to families whose apartments were damaged in the fighting:
plastic sheeting to replace windows and doors shattered by
explosions, blankets, and buckets and other basic items required
for washing and cooking.
It is not enough, however, to assuage the anger of Leila
Al-Helou, one of the 80,000 recipients of the emergency assistance
distributed in the days following the ceasefire. The mother
of six picks her way carefully up the stairs of the building
in which she lived, with seven other families, until just
a few days ago. “The building was hit several times,” she
says, surrounded by rubble and the debris of furniture.“Thank
God, my husband, my children and I had already left the place.”
The building’s top two stories had collapsed with
the violence of the shock. One of the remaining walls has
a hole 1.5 metres in diameter, through which you can see
the villages of southern Israel some 2 kilometres away. “We
have been living here for 20 years. Now, we have nowhere
to go, we have lost everything,” says Al-Helou.
Like an earthquake
Throughout the Gaza Strip, several thousand houses and apartments
have been completely or partially destroyed in the conflict.
At the beginning of February, the ICRC and the Palestinian
Red Crescent counted more than 3,300 damaged houses in the
areas where the fighting was fiercest. Some districts look
as if they have been struck by an earthquake. But just about
every person in the territory has suffered the consequences
in one way or another.
When the conflict was at its height, two-thirds of Gazans
were completely without power and one-third without drinking
water. Three weeks after it ended, tens of thousands of people
still had no running water, being obliged to buy it from
private vendors at double the normal price. Certain districts
in Gaza, as well as places in the north of the Gaza Strip
such as Jabaliya, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, will have
to wait even longer to be reconnected to public water and
Gaza City’s sewage treatment facility, situated in
an agricultural zone, was bombed during the second week of
the war. “Three million litres of waste water instantly
flooded the surrounding localities and fields, wiping out
crops and endangering the health of tens of thousands of
people,” recalls Marek Komarzinski, an ICRC engineer.
It took three weeks after the fighting was over to get the
station back in working order.
Swamped by a sudden influx of wounded people, often in a
serious condition, the health services worked round the clock
for three weeks, until almost at breaking point, relying
on generators to keep the equipment going when fuel supplies
threatened to run out at any moment. According to the World
Health Organization, eight hospitals and at least 26 primary
healthcare centres, including the Al-Quds Red Crescent hospital,
were directly or indirectly damaged in the fighting.
Consequences of closures
The blow to Gaza and its population was all the more severe
coming as it did after one and a half years of deprivation. “The
situation was already critical before the January conflict,” explains
Antoine Grand, head of the ICRC office in Gaza. “The
closures imposed by Israel since summer 2007 have had disastrous
effects on hospitals, on sanitation systems, and on water
and electricity supply.” The lack of cooperation between
the Palestinian Authority, run from Ramallah in the West
Bank, and the Hamas administration in Gaza has not facilitated
access for the aid necessary to improve basic public services.
The restrictions have had other adverse consequences for
the population: almost 50 per cent unemployment, rampant
inflation, rising poverty, a drop in agricultural production,
the deterioration in the diets of an increasing number of
people, threatening their long-term health, etc. All of the
humanitarian organizations working in Gaza have been striving
to counter these effects, making representations to the Israeli
authorities, since they control almost all routes in and
out of the territory.
“To get Gaza back on its feet and repair its infrastructure,
there must be a nonstop and unrestricted supply of building
materials and spare parts,” warns Antoine Grand. “Workers
are available. They just need something to work with. But
if we go back to the pre-war situation, with one closure
after another, reconstruction will simply not be possible.”
Sébastien Carliez (ICRC
Geneva) with Iyad Nasr (ICRC Gaza).
“There was a lack of respect
for medical teams”
Dr Khaled Jouda is head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society
(PRCS) in the Gaza Strip. He explains how delicate the work
of his teams was during the crisis in January.
What was PRCS’s role during the events?
We tried as much as we could to continue providing all types
of medical services at all times to the population throughout
the Strip. Our ambulance teams took the wounded mainly
to the Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City. During the three-week
conflict, we managed to transport around 2,400 injured
people and moved 1,100 civilians trapped in dangerous areas
to safety. Our teams also evacuated 750 bodies. Most of
the time, the movement of our ambulances was carried out
with the coordination of the ICRC and sometimes even escorted
by ICRC teams.
What were the biggest challenges faced by your
The evacuation and transportation of wounded and sick people
were made extremely difficult, due in particular to the unpredictable
nature of the fighting. The movement of our emergency medical
teams was very much limited even when they were operating
close to their bases or to our warehouses. I have to say
that there was often a lack of respect for medical teams
and for the Red Crescent emblem. The toughest challenge we
faced, though, was when the PRCS compound was hit by shelling
twice on the same day, setting a warehouse, some offices
and our cultural centre on fire. After the second incident,
the fire brigades were denied access to our buildings for
three hours. That could have had disastrous consequences
for the lives of 350 people, many of whom were wounded and
sick being treated at the Al-Quds hospital, as well as families
who had taken refuge in our compound.
We decided to evacuate the hospital amid continuous fighting
in the neighbourhood. Patients in the intensive care unit
were taken out lying on their beds. Newborn babies were moved
in their incubators. The patients who could walk had to carry
their intravenous drips by themselves. It was a horrifying
scene and I still find it difficult to describe.
The conflict also took its toll on our staff. One volunteer
was killed and six medical workers were injured. But despite
all these difficulties and the personal challenges that the
conflict posed on our teams and their families, about half
of our 800 regular staff members reported to work during
these three weeks. Another 30 people volunteered to join
What were your needs and priorities in the immediate
aftermath of the crisis?
Our first priority is to rehabilitate the damage to our facilities,
in particular parts of the hospital and the warehouse. Then,
we need new ambulances and spare parts to repair those that
were damaged during the conflict. For the sake of the population
of Gaza, cooperation and coordination with partner National
Societies are crucial to mobilize the support we need so
that we can resume normal activities