RAFAH — When the wound eases, the real pain begins ... This Arab proverb expresses well the profound disillusionment of the inhabitants of Gaza, a week since an open-ended ceasefire came into force.
The end of fighting presented by Hamas as a "victory" after 51 days of conflict with Israel has up to now brought no major changes to the daily life of locals. The blockade has not been loosened and crossing borders is largely out of bounds for inhabitants of the narrow Palestinian enclave.
Leaning against the fence at the southern border crossing of Rafah, Abed vents his exasperation. "We haven’t really won anything," he says.
Wearing a suit, the professor is carrying an attaché case and an elegant blue suitcase. This is the fourth time this year that he has tried to cross the border between Gaza and Egypt, in an attempt to get to Germany. "I have a valid Egyptian visa. I’m not asking for the impossible. I thought this time it would work. They told us that the ceasefire would make it possible to open the border crossings or at least those with Egypt. But the fact is we’re back to square one."
Seated in the small cafeteria several meters from the crossing, Rami, 30, is also discouraged. "We’re back to business as usual, I’m going to have to start greasing the palms of the Egyptians again to get through."
He lives east of Khan Yunis where major battles took place. "After the heavy price we paid I was hoping the Egyptians would make an effort." The 51 days of fighting caused the death of at least 2,140 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 72 Israelis, including seven civilians.
Six days after the "victory" celebrations of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions, many Palestinians see nothing but neighborhoods in ruin around them. Nearly 10% of Gaza’s population still doesn’t have access to running water more than once a day, and the enclave is still subject to electricity cuts for up to 20 hours a day.
In Beit Hanoun, a devastated town in the northern part of the strip, Ashraf Al-Masri’s family, with more than 60 members, survives on the lower floors of a partially collapsed house without water or electricity. A taxi driver, this 40-year-old Palestinian is the only wage earner in the family. Even if he earns more thanks to business from the foreign journalists since the war started, it amounts to very little to support so many. "Buying bread every day eats up a fourth of my salary," he says.
Aid supply is power
Desperate, his family has set up a rotating system: To benefit from food aid some of the members go sleep every week in the schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Since the ceasefire was announced, it is here that most of the emergency distribution takes place.
On Aug. 27, the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) brought in, via the border with Egypt, basic food products for five days destined for 150,000 Gaza locals. Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman sent in nearly 200 tons of material for Gaza hospitals. Trucks transporting mattresses and hygiene products come in every day via the Kerem Shalom crossing.
WFP distribution in Gaza — Photo: WFP Facebook page
But Gaza locals, frustrated by a ceasefire that has yet to yield concrete progress, criticize the slow pace and insufficiency of the humanitarian aid that often gives priority to families linked to the armed factions. "In our neighborhood, people close to Hamas have already received blankets, mattresses, gas cylinders and clothes. We’re still waiting," says Ashraf Al-Masri.
Most of the international organizations have to apply to the old Hamas Ministry of Social Affairs to get a list of beneficiaries for aid. The national unity government of Fatah and Hamas hadn't had the time to set up an administration in Gaza before the conflict began.
In this devastated area, having control over humanitarian aid has become a political challenge in a context of power games between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, heightened by the difficult task of functioning as a unified delegation at negotiations due to take place within several weeks in Cairo.
In Rafah, independent Palestinian organizations decry police visits to their redistribution offices to seize their lists of beneficiaries in southern Gaza. "Hamas doesn’t want any competitors in distributing aid because they want to preserve their popularity with locals. There’s no room for independent aid," says Nafez Ghoneim, a member of the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP), which is part of the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
These criticisms are widely shared by other local NGOs that denounce increased Hamas control: "We try to organize distribution without telling the authorities, to avoid having it be controlled and directed by Hamas," says an activist who deplores uncoordinated distribution of humanitarian aid. "Only the involvement of the unity government could ensure better coordination."
Seated on the seashore near Gaza City, Nabila says she decided to leave her home in the ruined city of Beit Lahia, in the northern part of the strip. She takes a deep breath. "The ceasefire makes it easier to breathe. It’s the end of the bombs, of that terrible anxiety that twists your guts," says the young professor, who lost several relatives in the bombings. "But now it’s like a hangover after drinking too much. Bottom line, what have we won? Nothing. For this result we could have stopped at the first truce, when there were fewer than 100 deaths."