Opportunity for progress in Gaza; Sudan referendum
In my last briefing, I wrote about the annual UN observance of solidarity with the Palestinian people held on Nov. 29. The day following this observance, John Ging, the Gaza Director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provided a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. UNRWA was established by a UN General Assembly Resolution on Dec. 8, 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Its purpose is to provide assistance, protection and advocacy for approximately 4.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory. Its services include education, health care, relief, microfinance and emergency response. UNRWA is funded through the contributions of UN member States. The UN continues to renew UNRWA’s mandate annually, pending resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees.
In his briefing, Mr. Ging noted that consumer goods were reaching shops legitimately, through appropriate crossing points, instead of through the illegal tunnels. However, although the shops in Gaza are full of goods, such as food, medicine and household articles, this fact alone does not create any real economic activity, since much of the population cannot afford to purchase them. For a revival of the business sector, which according to Mr. Ging is 90 percent dormant, the people need access to external markets, which would include an increase in the number of trucks allowed to leave Gaza. It is estimated that the “tunnel economy” is down by 80 percent. The remaining 20 percent consists of “prohibited goods,” including cement and other construction materials, which Israel fears would be used for military purposes.
Mr. Ging noted some improvement in access to construction materials needed by the UN and other international organizations, even though restrictions continue. However, due to these restrictions , just 7 percent of UN construction needs for the coming six months have been met. Of particular concern in this regard is the educational sector. UNRWA had hoped to build 40 schools over the next six to eight months, with 60 more over the next two years, but only six schools have been approved so far.
The same dilemma holds true for housing construction. Thousands of houses are need compared to the number approved over the last six months. The international donor community has pledged $4.5 billion for construction purposes; however, this money cannot be accessed due to these restrictions. While Mr. Ging was encouraged by developments, as they proved that it was possible to get supplies through the crossing points, he spoke of the urgent need for more crossing points, to allow greater flow of desperately needed construction supplies into Gaza.
Despite positive developments in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli blockade adjustment following the May 31 attack on the relief flotilla, 80 percent of the population remains aid-dependent. In order to reactivate the economy, access must be expanded beyond consumer goods to the goods necessary to get the export market up and running. As well, freedom of movement for the population would enable people to return to former means of employment, and restore their purchasing power.
Regarding his contacts with Israeli authorities, Mr. Ging said that he had encountered an “abundance of good will” at all levels, and was encouraged by the interaction. Despite Israel’s complex political and security situation, he would build on positive developments in order to move forward at a faster pace, starting with education and infrastructure. It has been shown over the past six months that progress is possible –“it’s small, but possible,” said Mr. Ging. “Now, let’s seize on the opportunity.”
Another situation that deserves mention is the Jan. 9, 2011 referendum in Sudan. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. After gaining independence from Egypt and the United Kingdom in 1956, the country experienced 17 years of civil war, followed by seemingly endless ethnic, religious and economic conflicts between the North ( Arab and Muslim roots), and the South (oil-rich with Christian and Animist roots). During the years of war and violence, some 2 million people lost their lives, and 4 million were forced to flea their homes. Many internally displaced people are living in the North, and if violence breaks out, there is grave concern that they will not be able to return to the South.
On Jan. 9, there will be a referendum to determine the self-determination of Southern Sudan. There was to be a separate referendum on the future of Abyei, a disputed area on the border between the North and the South. However, it appears that this may not take place due to a question as to who is eligible to vote. Abyei is located in the Arab North, but its major ethnic group is African, loyal to the South, and practices Christianity and Animism. There is great concern that this area could reignite violence in both the North and the South. For a valid referendum, at least 60 percent of those registered must vote. However, if there is no security, people will not exercise their right. The UN Security Council has established a buffer zone on the border between the North and the South, and the United States, Great Britain, Norway and Italy are involved as well, in an effort to monitor the vote and keep the peace.
Following are some resources on the Sudan, thanks to Arlene Flaherty, OP( Blauvelt), who works with Catholic Relief Services.
CRS has been present in the Sudan for more than 40 years. These resources are wonderful teaching tools for all of us as we keep the upcoming referendum in our prayers. If anyone is interested in PowerPoint presentations and/or talking points regarding the situation, please feel free to contact Arlene directly at email@example.com
During these remaining days of Advent, a season of hope and expectation, let us keep the hopes and aspirations of the peoples of Israel, Palestine, North and South Sudan, and Abyei in our prayers.
In conclusion, some words of wisdom from author Clarissa Pinkola Estes:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
Margaret Mayce, OP (DLC/Amityville)
NGO in Special Consultative Status at the United Nations
Dominican Leadership Conference
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