Easing Gaza's Blockade?

It is hard to imagine that more than 1,000 days have passed since Gaza's borders were sealed in June of 2007. Sporadic Israeli air strikes still traumatize families there.

More than 1.6 million men, women and children live in Gaza, which measures only about 25 miles long and four to seven miles wide. That's twice the size of Washington DC with triple the population. The comparison ends there.

Gaza today is a humanitarian and economic disaster.

Israel recently allowed 10 truckloads of clothes and shoes to enter Gaza for local merchants but the merchandise was moldy from years in Israeli storage awaiting delivery. Basic humanitarian and relief supplies get in but there is still virtually no access for the cement and other materials needed to rebuild homes and really make a difference for families there.

Nine out of ten Gazans depend on foreign assistance to survive. Four out of ten children aged three to five have been diagnosed with anemia. One in ten children under five years old is malnourished. Most schools are out of basic supplies like paper, text books and pencils with little hope of replenishing their stocks as long as the border remains sealed. With so many facilities in disrepair, many schools operate double sessions in substandard conditions. Even Gazan youth honored by Fulbright scholarships often do not get the necessary visa to leave.

Gaza's youngsters account for more than half the population. Despondent young men and women have little hope of finding jobs as unemployment surpasses 40 percent and the chance to leave for work possibilities outside Gaza remains elusive. What does that foretell for their future?

More than 90 percent of Gaza's industrial enterprises were forced to close or were destroyed since Israel sealed the borders nearly three years ago.

That translates into about 120,000 lost jobs. An illegal economy is flourishing as supplies are smuggled in through tunnels along the Egyptian border. But the prices are exorbitant; making most of what is lining store shelves beyond the means of the majority of Gaza's families.

Poverty, malnutrition, personal losses and depression were magnified by last year's war and remain a constant concern. After the bombings stopped last year, ANERA initiated psychosocial care for those subjected to so much violence and distributed thousands of shoes for children who had lost everything when their homes were destroyed.

But that is a temporary solution. For more than 40 years our focus has been on sustainable development assistance. For ANERA and other international humanitarian organizations, meeting this goal has become harder every day that Gaza remains cut off.

Since last year's war, only a handful of UN-designated trucks were allowed to bring in construction materials to repair some UNRWA buildings but nothing else that would help rebuild the 20,000 homes and schools that were badly damaged or destroyed. Many families that had to abandon their homes are still living in temporary tents and metal containers that flood in sudden rains that engulf the area. Efforts to rebuild Gaza's homes, schools and clinics are severely limited by the lack of basic building materials.

Nearly 18 months later, one third of the area's fertile land still lies fallow. Farmers lack equipment like irrigation pumps and pipes that are in short supply because of import restrictions.

As warm weather approaches, so does the threat of health hazards, especially for the most vulnerable -- infants and the elderly. Millions of tons of raw sewage flow daily into the sea. Drinking water in many parts of the Gaza Strip is contaminated. It is hard to repair or replace damaged water systems without pipes and other basic materials that are still blocked from entering Gaza.

On my frequent trips into Gaza to assess our projects there, I find widespread despair. But I also witness a remarkable resilience. With no substantial building supplies, many families are resorting to mud to reconstruct their homes. Without supplies to replant farmland, ANERA is responding to requests to help develop urban agriculture, from rooftop gardens to small urban vegetable plots that can provide nutritious meals.

ANERA has also expanded its program to offer needy families 10 hens and a rooster to kick-start poultry production for egg-harvesting and income generation. Our Milk for Preschoolers program distributes fortified milk and biscuits to some 20,000 preschoolers every day of the school year -- for many their only nutritious meal of the day.

We can make a difference but our hands often are tied by restrictions on the materials we need to do the job. Rebuilding a woman's home should not be embroiled in politics. Feeding children in Gaza is not about politics; nor should politics stymie efforts to ease a family's suffering caused by war and poverty.

Gaza's disaster is man-made. Helping impoverished Palestinians in Gaza should be a basic humanitarian action of generosity and compassion that is repeated around the world wherever and however disaster strikes. It is also an investment in a future dream of peace and prosperity. Gaza should not be an exception.

Bill Corcoran is President of ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid), which provides humanitarian and development assistance to Palestinian and impoverished communities in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon.