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OPT: Gaza through a humanitarian lens

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By Jim White

Gaza, Occupied Palestinian Territory - Of the dozens of struggling Palestinians I have met here, none sticks in my mind more than a 7-year-old girl named Amira.
Her family visited the Dier Al Balah Rehabilitation Society, a local social service agency, on a recent Monday morning to receive basic but vital medical supplies some colleagues and I were distributing. Amira, made frail by a rare paralyzing nerve disorder, sat expressionless in her wheelchair as her uncle explained to me how close the family came to making an agonizing decision: whether to spend their dwindling savings on supplies needed for Amira's well-being, or on food required to feed the family.

Amira puts a distressing face on what the United Nations calls an "extremely bleak" humanitarian outlook for Gaza, a crowded strip of land on the brink of economic and possibly political collapse.

The refusal by the Palestinian political party Hamas to recognize Israel or disavow terrorism after its January victory in legislative elections triggered a halt in Israeli tax transfers and a moratorium on most international aid to the Palestinian Authority. As a result, wages to 73,000 teachers, healthcare workers, policemen and other municipal workers in Gaza - more than one-third of its workforce - haven't been paid since February. Poverty rates are expected to hit 74 percent without these salaries, according to the UN.

Tightened borders have added to Gaza's economic woes. At the Erez checkpoint, where as many as 25,000 Palestinians once crossed into Israel each morning to earn a living, no workers have been allowed out since mid-March. Border closures elsewhere have essentially shut down Gaza's export market and led to shortages of everything from bread to medicines. Stocks of wheat flour are "critically low" and there are fears that basic commodities will soon dry up, according the World Food Program, which now supplies 160,000 Gazans with emergency food aid.

The looming humanitarian catastrophe threatens the well-being and security of most of Gaza's 1.3 million residents, as well as the prospects for Middle East peace.

The so-called "quartet" of international donors - the U.S., EU, UN and Russia - recently pledged to create a mechanism that delivers aid directly to the Palestinian people without passing it through the Hamas-led government's hands. But this funding tap hasn't yet been turned on, and it remains to be seen whether it can effectively funnel relief to those who need it most.

Over the last several weeks, Mercy Corps has partnered with Palestinian community groups to assist the most critical cases, those people already reeling from Gaza's rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. We've delivered vital medical equipment and supplies to hundreds of people with disabilities and distributed sacks of foodstuffs such as flour, milk and vegetable oil to dozens of poor families in Al Mawassi, an impoverished area near the Egyptian border.

More help is desperately needed, as the territory's descent into destitution shows no signs of slowing. Mercy Corps and other humanitarian agencies already on the ground in Gaza are well-positioned to help alleviate the worst suffering.

Unfortunately, the "Palestinian Anti-Terrorist Act" passed last month by the U.S. House of Representatives profoundly restricts the ability of Mercy Corps and other U.S.-based charitable organizations to deal with the growing crisis. The bill goes far beyond dealing with Hamas's rise to power. It limits our assistance to filling basic human health needs, stymieing vital job-creating programs that better match the needs and desires of hardworking Gazan families. It prevents us from delivering humanitarian assistance in a way that helps build a better future for Palestinians and engages them to overcome their own struggle against poverty, indignity and despair.

We applaud politicians like Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who share our opinion that this bill conflicts with both our humanitarian values and our foreign policy interests. Rep. Blumenauer pointed out on the floor of the House that the act provides no sunset provision to reward a change in Palestinian policy or government, and that it "may well end up backfiring and actually providing further strength to the extremists" in the region.

We urge the Senate not to endorse this self-defeating measure as it considers a similar bill in the coming weeks. We can simultaneously stand firm against terrorism, be an active partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and extend a helping hand to thousands of vulnerable families in Gaza.

When he approved food aid to Ethiopia in 1985, despite that country's Cold War-era socialist sympathies, Ronald Reagan said, "A hungry child knows no politics." Let's not withhold humanitarian aid from Gaza's most vulnerable people because of Hamas - that's a short-sighted exercise in blaming the victim.

America's great tradition of humanitarianism saves lives around the world and makes our nation proud. In times of desperate need, wherever and whenever it strikes, families like Amira's deserve the best we can muster.