Since last September, Mercy Corps has provided short-term jobs to more than 1,100 Gazans still reeling from last year's economic crisis. Ten Mercy Corps staff members organize work crews to clean beaches, renovate kindergartens and repair roads and sewers in two of Gaza's largest towns. In an economy where more than two of every five workers are unemployed, the jobs are deeply appreciated: 1,500 residents of Dier Al-Balah recently signed a "Certificate of Gratitude" to Mercy Corps.
Today the seaside territory - it's roughly the same area and population of Philadelphia - is in turmoil. On Thursday evening in Gaza, Isdud Al Najjar, program manager for Mercy Corps Emergency Job Creation program, spoke about life in Gaza City, humanitarian needs and what the recent fighting means for the agency's programs.
The interview took place after Hamas had apparently wrested control of Gaza from its rival, Fatah, but before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency and dissolved the unity government.
Mercy Corps: I'm sure it's been another tough day in Gaza.
Isdud Al Najjar: It's a very dramatic, very dark day, really. It's extremely difficult for all the Palestinians. I'm talking now from a dark house, because we've had no electricity for 10 hours now. Consequently we don't have water, because we don't have water without electricity (to pump it). I'm still hearing shooting, because I'm living not very close but not very far from the main office for the Preventive Security forces. Hamas said that they control the city at this point, but there is still shooting. And I don't have television to find out the news. I'm calling my friends and relatives every hour to find out the news.
What has it been like the last few days?
It was very difficult for all the Palestinians. It was very strange to have all the aggression here. They're shooting from the roofs of hospitals, they've asked people to leave their houses and abandon their property, they're shooting in the middle of the streets. In one hospital, patients along with doctors are stuck inside, and even the Red Cross wasn't able to secure any entrances to get people out.
For Gaza, especially Gaza City, it's like a curfew - people are not allowed to go outside their houses. This is the fourth day that we did not go outside our small apartment. We have final exams now for the final year for the secondary school; it's very important for the students. But some students were not able to go outside their houses to go to their exams. They were appealing (to fighters to let them), but the shooting was nonstop and very heavy. And they would not let any of them go.
How is your own family coping? Do you have enough food?
I have food, because I kept a stockpile. Tomorrow I'll be in shortage for bread and vegetables. If this continues any longer, I will be in shortage.
It's difficult for my children. I have two daughters: one is 6 years old, the other is 3. They are just going crazy, especially the younger one; she asks me to stop the shooting. She's nagging all the time, and she's scared. Last night she didn't sleep at all. Every one hour, half an hour, she wakes up crying because of the shooting. And they always ask why, why is this happening, we want to go to the "KG," the kindergarten. If they go to their rooms, they hear the shooting. And so I must go everywhere with them.
How many staff does Mercy Corps have in Gaza? And are you in contact with them?
There are ten including myself. Six of us are in Gaza City. I'm in daily contact with all of them. We call to make sure they are okay and their families are doing fine. Our administrative assistant, she was living close to one of the buildings where the fighting was very heavy for last three days. She managed to move to her parents' house, so she is okay.
What is the status of Mercy Corps' emergency job creation project?
Our project is in two areas, Khan Younis and Dier Al-Balah. We continued to work in both places until Tuesday, at which time we felt that the situation was not secure for the staff as well as for the workers. We felt that at any moment, fighting could break out. So we decided to suspend the work on Wednesday and Thursday, and we will resume on Sunday, if the situation allows.
What are some examples of the projects that were being done before we suspended work on Tuesday?
We're renovating some kindergartens, rehabilitating some of the streets and one public park in Dier Al-Balah, repairing the sewer lines, cleaning the beach.... The municipalities don't have money to cover these needs.
How do you anticipate the needs changing after the fighting stops?
We may to plan to meet more basic needs, like food, medicine.... People left their houses, their houses were damaged, their things were stolen. I think the burden of the international and the local NGOs who are operating in the Gaza Strip will increase. They will have to play the role of the government because the government will not be able to do it.
You've worked for several aid organizations in Gaza over the past decade. Is this the worst you've experienced?
If you asked me last year, I'd have said the mood was very bad then, because of the international aid cutoff and the border closures (both a response to Hamas' victory in Palestinian legislative elections). The question at this moment is so difficult for me. All the Palestinians are in shock from what we've been through the last four days. What has happened is not in our culture. It makes it harder for us to achieve our dream of having a state. We are now fighting each other; we are killing each other. What comes after? I'm expecting worse days than we have experienced already.