ERUSALEM – The Gaza Strip may already be “unlivable”, a United Nations official warned Tuesday, after a decade of Hamas rule and a crippling Israeli blockade.
Robert Piper, the UN’s top humanitarian official in the Palestinian territories, told AFP in an interview to mark a new report on living conditions in Gaza all the “indicators are going in the wrong direction”.
“We predicted some years ago that Gaza would fast become unlivable on a host of indicators and that deadline is actually approaching even faster than we predicted — from health access, to energy to water,” he said.
A 2012 UN report predicted the Palestinian enclave would be “unlivable” by 2020 if nothing was done to ease the blockade. Piper pointed out that power supplies were down to as little as two hours a day in Gaza, where medical care had been slashed and youth unemployment was over 60 percent.
In such circumstances “for most of us that unlivability point has already been passed”, he said. “And yet somehow the Gazans soldier on.”
The Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas seized Gaza from secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s forces in June 2007, leading Israel to impose a crippling blockade which critics say punishes all of the two million residents indiscriminately.
Since 2013 Egypt, the only other country with which Gaza shares a border, has largely closed off its crossing and destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels that provided a vital lifeline for the economy while also allegedly being used by Hamas to bring in weapons.
The new UN report, “Gaza — Ten Years Later,” says more than 95 percent of Gaza’s water is now unfit for drinking, while electricity supplies have reached critical levels in recent months — falling to only a few hours a day.
Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, the most recent in 2014. Tiny Gaza is wedged between Israel, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean and is barely 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide.
With two million people it is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and has suffered heavily in each of the conflicts.
The Palestinian Authority, which runs the internationally-recognised government in the West Bank, has recently begun a campaign to squeeze Hamas — including reducing energy funding and allegedly the number of permits given to sick Gazans seeking medical treatment outside.
Critics say this has led to yet more suffering in Gaza.
Piper said the PA’s objective of ending the split between Palestinian factions was “legitimate” and even backed some of the measures to put pressure on Hamas, but warned others were indiscriminate.
After being expelled by Hamas in 2007, the PA continued to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 employees who are not actually working.
The PA has sought to reduce their salaries in recent months, while forcibly retiring others. Analysts say the move is designed to pressure Hamas by creating tension in Gaza, and a recent poll found 88 percent of Palestinians opposed the move.
“Cuts that were made to the salaries of employees who were still at home and not even going to work are arguably a legitimate means of putting some pressure on the de facto authorities in Gaza,” Piper said.
Other measures, he said, “are much less palatable” highlighting the energy cuts and reduction in the number of healthcare permits for sick Gazans seeking care outside the strip. “The Palestinian Authority has been taking certain measures to at least slow access to proper health care,” he said.
“These sorts of measures for us are not acceptable.”