Mohammad Sabe, CHF International’s Food Security Program Manager, and Mohsen Ghazali, CHF’s Shelter/Non-Food Items Program Manager, are both based in Gaza City. Sabe is in charge of the distribution of food aid provided by the United Nations World Food Program and other donors to roughly 200,000 non-refugees in the Gaza Strip. Ghazali joined CHF during the conflict to manage the shelter and non-food distribution programs.
During the 22-day Israel-Gaza conflict, they worked continuously with CHF’s Gaza-based staff to distribute a two-month food ration to people in need, as well as emergency non-food items and hundreds of rolls of plastic sheeting.
Now that a ceasefire is in place, both say the real work of supporting thousands of Gazans has to continue, as the war seriously exacerbated an already dire situation coming on the heels of an 18-month Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Here are excerpts of a Feb. 2 conversation with Sabe and Ghazali about their work with CHF in Gaza:
Q: Now that the situation has calmed down, what are CHF’s priorities in Gaza?
A: Mohammad Sabe: The priority now is to distribute the 2,300 parcels of food and other items to five governorates in Gaza. They are intended for internally displaced people that were most affected by the fighting. Thousands of people need not just food, but also basic supplies, such as hygiene kits, candles, warm clothing and blankets – lots of things.
Today we transferred the parcels from the border crossing to five CHF warehouses. Tomorrow we’ll start to distribute them to the people. We expect another shipment of similar items to come in next week which will be distributed to 3,400 families.
Q: Were you doing this work during the conflict?
A: Mohammad Sabe: During the conflict we managed to get food to more than 110,000 people by distributing WFP food aid that was already in our warehouses as well as aid that was brought in during the fighting. We’ve also given out a lot of plastic sheeting.
Q: Plastic sheeting?
A: Mohsen Ghazali: Yes, during the conflict when they would declare a few hours ceasefire we immediately used the time to distribute plastic sheeting to hospitals, individuals, universities and non-governmental organizations. In total we’ve distributed more than 10,000 rolls, in fact. It was the quickest way to weatherize affected shelters and facilities. Still, hundreds of families remain without basic shelter.
Q: Have you started helping people rebuild houses that were damaged or destroyed in the fighting?
A: Mohsen Ghazali: No. This is a huge project that will need a lot of coordination with the UNDP and UNRWA [United Nations Development Program and United Nations Relief and Works Agency]. There are many obstacles, including that Israel has not allowed cement and other building materials to cross the border into Gaza. It will take time before we can begin any serous kind of rebuilding.
Despite these difficulties, we will complete by Feb. 5 an assessment of residential homes that were damaged or destroyed in the fighting. In the next few days, we will be distributing more plastic sheeting to the ones that are partially damaged.
Q: What about rebuilding?
A: Mohsen Ghazali: We’ve hired 34 engineers to assess in greater detail, house by house, what the damages are and what it will take to rebuild. But, to be honest, we’ve been frustrated by the lack of cement and other building materials. Someone suggested bamboo, but there is no bamboo in Gaza. So we’ve changed our design to use wood and plastic and we hope to find sufficient quantities of wood in Gaza to test the model in the most affected areas.
This makes things very difficult at the moment, but we are hoping that cement and other building materials will soon be allowed through the crossing points. In the meantime, we hope to at least construct temporary shelters with plastic sheeting, tarps and wood poles. Some people are using tents, but really tents are not a feasible housing alternative for more than one month.
Q: Are a lot of Palestinians living in tents?
A: Mohammad Sabe: Well, we’re not sure of the exact number. But there are many [tent] camps now. You can see them in East Jabaliya, about 300 tents, and another 300 in Izbet Abed Rabbo. Both areas were severely damaged during the fighting. But we don’t know the exact number. Many people are staying with relatives or host families.
Q: What is the mood of the people now?
A: Mohammad Sabe: People are happy with CHF’s help. We hear this from them all the time. As for the big picture, some people are worried. People who lost their houses are very worried. They are looking for help.
Q: What do people ask for most?
A: Mohsen Ghazali: People ask most for shelter and rebuilding supplies. However rebuilding supplies are the hardest to get in. We have to tell them that there is no cement being allowed in and no building materials available at the moment.
Q: Are you finding that CHF’s efforts are having an impact?
A: Mohammad Sabe: Well, the work is easier than during the conflict, when we took alternative routes to our warehouses to avoid bombing raids and street fighting, and used the 3-hour ceasefires to try to distribute to people in critical need. We didn’t even use the ceasefires to get supplies for our own families.
Now, we’re no longer worried that our warehouses might be damaged or looted. People appreciate what we’ve done during the war and respect our transparent way of selecting the neediest recipients.
But it is still an uphill climb. There isn’t a big sense of security among the people. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome to rebuild what has been destroyed.
Q: Thank you, Mohammad and Mohsen