Never in Oxfam’s history have we seen a humanitarian crisis like the one in Gaza

20 October 2023 | Danny Sriskandarajah

Instead of running relief services, our staff are running for their lives. We need a ceasefire now – for the sakes of both Palestinians and Israelis. 

Much hope is being pinned on the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt to allow aid into Gaza. But 20 truckloads isn’t going to come close to addressing the humanitarian catastrophe we’re seeing unfold in this besieged strip of land. President Biden, Prime Minister Sunak and other world leaders, need to be calling for an immediate ceasefire and for unfettered, safe access for humanitarians to provide relief and repair essential services.

Oxfam has been providing humanitarian relief for people caught up in war for decades. We do this in Somalia, Yemen, and Syria, and we have been doing this in Palestine for decades. But what is happening in Gaza today is unprecedented.

Elsewhere my brave colleagues would be running relief services; in Gaza today they are running for their lives. Elsewhere we would be in constant touch with them; in Gaza today their phones are running out of battery because electricity has been cut off. Elsewhere, we would share our location data with combatants to keep staff and civilians safe; in Gaza today, no-one is safe.

The humanitarian rule book has been thrown out, and polite pleas from politicians to ‘minimise civilian fatalities’ are naïve at best, and at worst, seem blind to the unimaginable horrors already taking place in Gaza.

We do not know for sure who bombed the Al Ahli Anglican Episcopal Hospital, but the loss of at least 500 lives is either evidence that a heinous war crime has been committed through deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, or it is proof that in a place as densely-populated as Gaza it is utterly impossible to minimise loss of civilian life. As this descends into claims and counter claims for responsibility we can agree on one thing: it was not the fault of the vulnerable people and brave medical staff who were killed.

The situation when it comes to water is potentially even more deadly. More than two million people, half of them children, are being denied one of life’s essentials; they are forced to drink dirty water or go without. Without working toilets and with waste accumulating in the streets, Gaza risks becoming a breeding ground for cholera and other deadly diseases.

According to the UN, at least six of Gaza’s water wells, three water pumping stations and one water reservoir have been damaged so far. All three of its desalination plants have stopped providing water due to lack of fuel and electricity; all six of its wastewater treatment plants are now non-operational. There is no water for 3,500 inpatients in 35 hospitals, and around 400,000 internally displaced people sheltering in 160 schools are at immediate risk. The UN estimates that people in Gaza now have access to an average of just 3 litres of water a day when a person needs 50-100 for basic health needs.

Attacking, destroying or rendering civilian infrastructure useless is a breach of international humanitarian law. That Hamas is holding hostages is truly appalling; the atrocities committed by them against Israeli civilians heart breaking. Neither fact however justifies the collective punishment of two million people or negates the responsibility of Israel to meet these basic needs for civilians. Gazans have literally nowhere to go, and no one seems willing or able to help as families face death by dehydration and disease.

All hostages must be released. We need the Israeli authorities to turn water and electricity back on for the whole of Gaza. We need fuel to run the water pumps and sewage treatment plants. And we need safe, unrestricted humanitarian access.

Oxfam was founded in the darkness of World War II on the courageous principle that the needs of innocent men, women and children caught up in a war transcend political divides, that all of us have a responsibility to act to prevent civilian deaths. It is truly heart-breaking that, in 2023, those principles that go to the core of our humanity are being ignored. Courage is not found in using weapons against families, it is found in standing with the families against those weapons. Only an end to the cycle of violence can bring hope of a better future for both Palestinians and Israelis.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 19 October 2023. You can read it on The Guardian’s website here.