The Common Good

Toothbrushes, Towels, and Tackling Root Causes in Gaza

1100629-gazarabbit-noorWe met 10-year-old Noor Al-Abid in November during our first visit to Gaza. She was the bravest of her six siblings, willing to cradle one of her family's adorable baby rabbits while a strange man with a big camera (me) snapped away in the fading light of evening.

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Of course, that cute little rabbit is destined for the stewpot -- a fact we somewhat sheepishly explain when her photo appears in our presentations -- as it is the progeny of rabbits distributed as part of a food security project by our partner, Al Najd Development Forum. Due to rabbits' legendary reproductive abilities, after just one year of breeding, they now have 25 -- not counting those consumed throughout the year by Noor and her mother, father, three sisters, and two brothers. The rabbits are prepared similarly to chicken, and are low in fat and cholesterol. Those Noor's family doesn't eat are sold to other families in order to purchase other necessities.

We were happy to see Noor's bright smile again in February when Al Najd was distributing part of an MCC-facilitated shipment of 11,000 hygiene kits. Noor and her mother were there among the families receiving kits distributed that day, each selected according to their need by Al Najd, who has ongoing relationships with each of them.

Each kit contained two towels, four toothbrushes, a tube of toothpaste, three combs, and two bars of soap. Here's an excerpt from Al Najd's follow-up report:

One mother, who prefers to keep her name anonymous, was very pleased with the health kits. The mother told us that her family doesn't have any toothbrushes or towels. Her first priority is to feed her children, and toothbrushes and towels are perceived as luxury. Food is more important to buy than buying a tooth brush or a towel due to their dire economic situation. Now every family member has a toothbrush and a towel.

Other families informed us that previously the whole family would share one toothbrush and one towel as they can't afford buying a toothbrush for each. Now every member of those families is enjoying the luxury of having their own towel and toothbrush.

Some of the kits were distributed to kindergartens. The distribution was followed with some health awareness education and good day-to-day hygiene habits, especially on how to clean their teeth and wash their hands.

While the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) responds to needs like these in other parts of the world due to natural disasters like droughts or floods, Gaza's disaster is almost entirely political. For the last four years, Israel has enforced a crippling blockade as a form of "economic warfare," resulting in an unemployment rate of some 45 percent, according to a recent U.N. report.

Despite claims that the blockade has been eased, as an International Red Cross official recently stated, "The entry of goods into Gaza is also still highly restricted, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the particular items allowed. Long delays are frequent." Our shipment is evidence of this fact. Our hygiene kits started their voyage through Israeli red tape a year ago in June 2010, but weren't able to arrive until January 2011.

Moreover, much of Gaza's civilian infrastructure was destroyed by Israel in December and January of 2008 to 2009, in a conflict that killed some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Though the Israeli military always claims to be targeting militants who fire rockets into Israel, the majority of those killed were non-combatant civilians.

Gaza's Hamas-led government is also a source of trouble. Noor's family's neighborhood is built on land owned by the Hamas, which has plans to evict her family and all other residents to make way for other buildings. One source of Hamas' erstwhile popularity was its ability to provide charity in the form of food distribution, clinics, and schools. But the Islamist party does not like competition, so NGOs that provide similar services have had their property seized or vandalized and employees intimidated. Some have been shut down entirely. Hamas also controls and profits from smuggling though tunnels under Gaza's southern border with Egypt. If the blockade is intended to punish Hamas, this strategy seems to have backfired.

Because of these conditions, Gaza is the primary place in Palestine where MCC has supplied emergency relief aid in recent years. However, these efforts must always be combined with sustainable development and advocacy that addresses root causes. Food security projects like the one that taught Noor's family to raise rabbits, and educational and vocational training programs through our other Gaza partners, the Culture and Free Thought Association and the Near East Council of Churches, remain a critical component of MCC's activities there.

On the advocacy front, after nine international activists were killed when Israeli commandos stormed a humanitarian flotilla attempting to reach Gaza in May 2010, MCC offices in the U.S. and Canada endorsed letters to President Barack Obama and then-Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, respectively, calling both for an investigation of the incident and international pressure to end the blockade.

And despite Gaza's dire situation, there have been some recent glimmers of change. Egypt recently announced the opening of its border with Gaza, signifying the opening of a prison door that could mean greater freedom of movement (though meaningful implementation has yet to be realized). It is also uncertain if a tenuous unity deal between Hamas and its main political rival, Fatah, will result in practical improvements for families like Noor's any time soon. But regardless of the shifting political sands in Gaza, MCC remains committed to supporting our partners there in relief, development, and advocacy.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a program administrator for Mennonite Central Committee living in East Jerusalem and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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