Interview with Martha Myers, Country Director for the West Bank & Gaza at CARE
On January 6, I had the privilege of sitting down with Martha Myers, the West Bank and Gaza “country director” for the international relief and development group CARE International. CARE published a report that extensively documents the humanitarian consequences caused by the siege on Gaza entitled “Humanitarian Implosion”. The March 2008 report noted that “the situation for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is worse now than it has ever been since the start of the Israeli military occupation in 1967.”
I interviewed Myers for both an update on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the struggles she and her organization face in addressing it.
Since the oncoming winter rains have focused media attention of the siege on Israel’s prohibition of basic building materials, I asked Myers about what arguments she hears from Israeli officials as they try to explain or justify a blockade that paralyzes reconstruction efforts. I had assumed that Israeli officials could only justify the siege, at least in public, as a means to keep out materials that could be used for making bombs and other weapons that could kill Israeli civilians.
But Myers told me she had heard a quite different argument during a discussion on this point with Maj. Aviad Zilberman, the Head of the Coordinator’s Liasion Office at the Erez crossing. “I asked, ‘what do you think will happen if you let in cement? That people will walk up to the fence and lob cement bags at the IDF?'” she said. “He told me that ‘we don’t want them building defensive structures’.”
That indicates something important about the way this Israeli official– and perhaps many of his colleagues and superiors– look at the intention of the siege. He was arguing that the danger from reconstruction materials going into Gaza is not that they would be used to kill people, but rather to prevent people from being killed by future Israeli attacks.
The blockade has lasted over two years at this point, and has been tightened considerably since late 2008. Myers– who has worked as an NGO manager and leader in the OPTs for many years now– said it has been the response of the Gaza population that has been the greatest shock.
“If I were going to point to something in Gaza since Cast Lead, it is a community in control of itself,” she explained. While being subjected to such dire living conditions one might expect people to “fall in on each other like wolves,” that hasn’t happened in Gaza. “There is still a basic premise of civility that governs individual and community actions,” she noted.
She described the fact that Gazan society has endured the stranglehold of the blockade without further collapse as “one of the things that’s most worth noting about the year since Cast Lead.”
She shared a few stories of the resourceful innovations and coping strategies Gazans have undertaken under the blockade:
- An engineer from Gaza devised a way for his car to run on water.
- Vegetable oil has commonly been used to run cars, when gas is not available
- Without fuel to run an electrical plant, Gazans figured out a way to run their power plant off a gigantic pile of car batteries
- Rebar rods from bombed out buildings are routinely straightened and re-used for repairs (“though this is a housing-code disaster” she noted)
- The streets of Gaza, which originally “looked like those old pictures of Dresden”, have now been to a great extent cleaned up
I was reminded of a few more examples of this resourcefulness that I’d heard about elsewhere:
- The Red Cross smashed bombed out houses for gravel (another excruciatingly difficult to get into Gaza) to prevent erosion
- The rubble of the border wall that was blown up in the Jan08 Gaza “jail break” was used to build a rainwater runoff ditch
- The revival of the artistic and political tradition of graffiti in Gaza, restoring and deepening the rich heritage of Arabic calligraphy.
The greatest testament to Gaza’s strength is, perhaps, that it is functioning at all after concerted attempts to debilitate the daily functioning of a society. “In the months before November 2008 [the month in which Israel first violated the June 2008 ceasefire in a significant way], no cars were out anyway. Everybody was walking or riding donkey carts.” Myers reasoned that “perhaps that makes sense if you can cut down on the mobility of your opponent.”
(Though that logic seems to only follow if your opponent is the entire population of the Gaza Strip.)
She pointed out that the tunnels have been a successful way for Gazans to circumvent the collapse of the Gazan economy. The tunnel economy constitutes the only economy to speak of in Gaza outside of the international assistance economy. Cooking oil and some other types of fuel have remained available only because of the tunnel economy. Now that Egypt is building a wall to destroy those tunnels, Myers predicts that Gaza will be brought to a “grinding halt”. She pointed out that hospitals in Gaza rely heavily on fuel-run generators for emergency needs, like keeping their ICU’s functioning.
Will the international community allow ICU’s to be deprived of fuel? It is worth noting that they already have. It is only because Gazans have defied the blockade by creating an underground economy that the generators are still able to function and to allow hospitals to continue saving lives.
Has the international community yet brought enough pressure on Israel to change the situation, I asked?
“On the contrary. The Israelis are sitting in a very comfortable position. They don’t have to do anything. They can just sit here with the status quo,” Myers replied. “The Israelis and the PA [Palestinian Authority] are quite comfortable and confident that the humanitarian community will continue to provide for Palestinians in a cage.”
The PA, too? Martha nodded, and went on to say, “I sometimes wonder if the PNA [Palestinian National Authority] is more focused on the well-being of the citizens of Gaza or the political quarrel with Hamas.”
With the closing of the Karni and Nahal Oz border crossings, the Israeli restrictions on aid delivery have become more onerous, not less, and the international community seems too willing to accommodate these ever-increasing obstacles. “If Israelis say do it with your legs crossed and your hands behind your head the international community will simply agree.” Even USAID projects struggle to slightly alter the formulations of which food items can be allowed into Gaza after months of high level negotiations.
So what is the solution?
In their “Middle East Quartet: Progress Report”, CARE and 12 other international NGOs that jointly authored the report called on Israel to adhere to the Agreement on Movement and Access of 2005 that it committed itself to along with the other relevant parties. They also demanded that Israel immediately allow for the entry of reconstruction materials and other urgent humanitarian supplies while an end to the blockade is being negotiated and normal civilian commerce restored.
Myers warned of just how deeply Gaza’s population has been forced into a state of lengthy dependence on international assistance. “I suppose it could be worse,” she said. “Eighty-eight percent of Gazans rely on the services of international community to meet their basic survival requirements for food, water, and shelter. But we could pull out of international aid there. We would then be looking at Srebrenitsa with people standing by a fence with their ribs sticking out.”
So it seems to me that that’s what the international community has been doing: keeping Gaza from– but still right at the edge of– a Srebrenitsa scenario, and working with the Israelis to maintain a status quo in which even the ability of the population to try to protect itself from Israeli airstrikes is out of the question. There have been no changes in the policies of the major world powers. Meanwhile Gazans have been forced to run their cars on water, substituting meals with grass seed, and running hospital generators on black-market fuel.
After talking with Martha Myers, I am ever the more grateful for the work of groups like CARE and other organizations that are “feeding Palestinians in a cage” rather than allowing a Srebrenitsa scenario. But it is also all the more clear that the real and urgent work for the international community is to unhinge the cage itself, that is, to end Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank once and for all. This is a particular responsibility for all those governments that for many years now have been paying all the expenses associated with administering the occupation on a daily basis– a situation that some diplomats from big aid donor Norway and other aid-giving countries now refer to as “our financing of the occupation.”
However it is the “basic premise of civility”, or the story of Gaza’s resilience that is, as Myers said, the big story of the past year since Operation Cast Lead.
This is all the more astonishing when it appears that the main target of the siege, as of last winter’s war, has been precisely that same force: Gaza’s own steadfast resilience.
Katya Reed is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah, regularly contributing her “livefrompalestine” updates to the FPFD blog. She can be reached at reed.katya-AT-gmail.com.