Situation worsens as Gaza blockade nears 1,000-day milestone

The situation in the Gaza Strip is becoming increasingly dire as the Israeli blockade approaches its 1,000th day, allowing an illegal economy to flourish, the new head of the United Nations agency tasked with assisting millions of Palestinian refugees said today.

Filippo Grandi, the UNRWA Commissioner-General, said that the problems faced by Gaza are not just humanitarian, but "encompass every aspect of society."

Last March, nations gathered in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and pledged nearly $5 billion to help rebuild Gaza.

However, those funds cannot be disbursed, Mr Grandi pointed out. "Virtually no materials or equipment destined for reconstruction by the UN and by the private sector... can be transported from Israel because we don't have permission to do so."

As a result, an illegal economy "is being imposed, almost, on the Gazans," he stressed.

Cement producers he has spoken with in Gaza have expressed their unhappiness at having to deal with black marketeers. "They're very eager to be able to go back to a normal situation where materials can be imported legally according to previous agreements and therefore proper reconstruction can begin."

Addressing reporters in New York today, Mr Grandi also welcomed yesterday's announcement that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will visit the region in the coming weeks.

Mr Ban, the UNRWA official said, was the first international leader who visited Gaza following the end of Operation Cast Lead, the three-week Israeli military offensive starting at the end of 2008 which had the stated aim of ending rocket attacks by militants operating in the area.

The fighting left more than 1,400 people dead, injured 5,000 others and reduced homes, schools, hospitals and marketplaces to rubble.

Mr Grandi, who served as Deputy Commissioner-General for nearly five years before assuming the top UNRWA post in January, voiced hope that the Secretary-General's impending visit "will also mark the beginning of a new and more positive phase for the people in Gaza and hopefully for the people in the occupied Palestinian territory as a whole."

He also expressed concern over UNRWA's precarious financial situation.

The agency provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, including in the areas of education, health care, community support and emergency response in times of armed conflict.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from Member States.

It requires $600 million a year to carry out its work, including in the education sector, where UNRWA employs 20,000 teachers. But its funding falls 20 per cent short of the amount needed.

Mr Grandi said that he hopes to roll out new schemes shortly, including helping young refugees in Gaza, where a large proportion of the population is under the age of 20. "They're the ones who are most fragile, most exposed to all sorts of risks," he stressed.

He met yesterday with General Assembly President Ali Treki, who noted that after more than six decades, the question of Palestinian refugees is still awaiting a just and durable solution.

Earlier this week, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, called for "radical" changes in Israeli policies towards the occupied Palestinian territory to allow people to carry out normal and dignified lives.

"For this to happen, marginal improvements here and there are not enough," he underscored in Jerusalem while on a visit to the region.

"I have a lot of admiration for the resilience and ingenuity of Gaza residents in trying to cope with the present circumstances," he said. "The work of relief agencies to assist those who have to endure hardship is also remarkable."

But he stressed that it is "disturbing" that one year after the fighting ended, "no meaningful reconstruction has yet started."