Rivlin: Gaza about to collapse, epidemics on horizon

After touring border area, president calls on international community to pressure Hamas to take responsibility

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

IDF brass brief President Reuven Rivlin during a tour of the Gaza border area, January 21, 2018. (Mark Neiman / GPO)
IDF brass brief President Reuven Rivlin during a tour of the Gaza border area, January 21, 2018. (Mark Neiman / GPO)

The Gaza Strip is headed for a humanitarian breakdown, and Israel is the only country providing its residents with basic essentials, President Reuven Rivlin said on Sunday after touring the area around the coastal enclave.

“Gaza is on the verge of collapse,” he warned. “The time is coming near when the infrastructure in Gaza will collapse, leaving many civilians in distress, with no sanitary conditions, exposed to pollution, impure water, and epidemics.

“The entire world must know and understand that the ones who are preventing rehabilitation are Hamas. Israel is the only one in the region, that whatever the situation, transfers basic essentials to the residents of Gaza, so that they can sustain the body and mind,” Rivlin added.

“We will not tolerate accusations of blame. I call on all world nations, to all who are able and have influence, to pressure those ruling Gaza, to pressure Hamas, to accept responsibility for their actions and the lives of their people.”

Palestinian children carry water bottles in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on January 4, 2018. ( AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

At least four out of every 10 Gazans are unemployed, compared with two out of 10 in the West Bank. (Israel’s unemployment rate is approximately 4.3%).

The enclave’s population is growing so fast that by 2030, the Palestinian territories would need 1 million new jobs just to keep unemployment at the rate it is now, a recent UN study found.

“We are on a downward spiral, especially in Gaza, and things are getting worse by the day,” said Anders Thomsen, director of the UN Population Fund’s office in the Palestinian territories, when the report was published. “If that continues, you can of course only imagine that this will be an environment ripe for radicalization and for the conflicts, so I think that should be avoided.”

Gazan households enjoy just four to six hours of electricity a day, and are forced to drink bottled water because the strip’s water infrastructure is in an advanced state of collapse.

Monthly salaries for those who do have jobs are low on average — NIS 1,600 (a little over $400), compared to NIS 2,000 ($550) in the West Bank. Poverty is everywhere.

Despite the lack of services, Gazans are forced to pay multiple taxes on goods — one tax goes to the Palestinian Authority and another goes to Hamas’s treasury.

Palestinians spend time next to sewage-polluted waters on a beach in Gaza City on July 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Just under a week ago, the prospects of the Palestinians took a further turn for the worse when the United States withheld $65 million from the UN relief agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), arguing that the organization needed a “fundamental re-examination.” On Friday, Washington announced it would hold back a further $45 million, this time meant for food aid as part of the West Bank/Gaza Emergency Appeal led by UNRWA last month.

Explaining the decision to withhold the cash, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that the $45 million was not a guarantee.

“At this time, we will not be providing that, but that does not mean — I want to make it clear — that does not mean that it will not be provided in the future,” Nauert said.

“Money coming in from other countries needs to increase as well to continue paying for all those refugees,” she said, adding that the UN agency needed to reform.

On Wednesday, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit charged that the US decision to freeze the funding was aimed at wiping out the whole issue of Palestinian refugees.

“This decision affects the education and health of Palestinians and aims to eradicate the question of refugees,” Gheit said at a conference in Cairo about Jerusalem.

Washington is the largest contributor to the UN agency.

Palestinian women chant slogans during a protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UNRWA offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Rivlin, who was briefed on the army’s efforts to stop Hamas digging terror tunnels into Israel, accused the enclave’s rulers of neglecting the welfare of Gazans, refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and using so-far unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as no more than “a step toward the advancement of war.”

Israel is building a massive 65-kilometer (40-mile) underground barrier to surround the Gaza Strip and put an end to the subterranean attack tunnels. It is due to be completed sometime before the end of 2019.

“We will not rest until there is quiet, until we have built a barrier of iron, a wall of iron, which together with Iron Dome [Israel’s air defense system, used to counter rockets fired from the enclave] will defend the residents from those who wish them ill,” Rivlin said.”The day will come when they will understand that we are here to stay and flourish.”

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