Aid agencies in Egypt are updating contingency plans in case an uncertain ceasefire, agreed on 21 November between Israel and Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, does not hold.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) are preparing for the possible need to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza and to support potential Palestinian refugees entering Egypt, in case the ceasefire fails and the situation in the Gaza Strip escalates.
“We stand ready, but we hope it does not happen,” Mohamed Dayri, head of UNHCR in Egypt, told IRIN.
More than 150 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in seven days of air strikes launched by Israel on Gaza, and rocket fire into Israel by Hamas.
“Discussions are under way with Egyptian counterparts, including the Egyptian Red Crescent to prepare to help Gaza from this end,” Abdul Haq Amiri, head of OCHA’s regional office in Cairo, told IRIN. “The contingency planning has two sides: increasing the level of assistance that needs to be channelled from Egypt into Gaza, and preparing for a possible influx of refugees from Gaza.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which had four doctors stationed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, bordering Gaza, before the recent conflict, has already provided health facilities, equipment and medicines in northern Sinai’s main town, al-Arish, in line with a request from the Ministry of Health.
IOM has also provided aid to more than 80 irregular migrants who crossed from Gaza and were detained by the Egyptian authorities.
So far, 41 patients from Gaza have been admitted to hospitals in Egypt, according to a senior Egyptian health official in North Sinai.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which had been helping to improve health facilities in Egypt’s border area, is now assessing the capacity of those hospitals to take in more patients from Gaza. It is also encouraging anyone who is sending medical teams, field hospitals, or drugs to coordinate with the Ministry of Health and WHO to avoid sending unneeded or incompatible aid.
Following the ceasefire, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced it was donating US$400,000 worth of drugs and medical supplies to WHO to help stock health centres in Gaza.
“The vast majority of UNRWA’s primary health-care centres have remained open throughout the fighting, but even before this recent escalation, there were significant shortages of medicines and supplies for Gaza’s hospitals,” said the director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, Robert Turner.
NGOs are in discussions with the UN about the best way to send aid into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing.
|People are putting together a plan, so that if more assistance needs to go in, everyone is ready and everyone knows their role|
OCHA is working with UN agencies to update past contingency plans and look at lessons learned from the humanitarian response during Israel’s last major military offensive, the 23-day Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
“The planning is [what to do] if the situation gets worse, needs in Gaza increase, stockpiles run out, and access from [the Israeli border] is restricted,” Samir Elhawary of OCHA, who is helping draft the new contingency plan, told IRIN.
WHO is already procuring materials, he said, and other UN agencies can procure materials within 48 hours if needed.
“People are putting together a plan, so that if more assistance needs to go in, everyone is ready and everyone knows their role.”
UNHCR is coordinating a Contingency Plan on the potential influx of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt.
Part of the preparations involves lobbying the Egyptian government to keep the Rafah border crossing open - both for people and supplies.
Assessments under way
Inside Gaza, the ability to provide aid during the bombardment had been hampered by insecurity. NGOs from CARE to Oxfam to Save the Children and World Vision put their operations on hold, evacuated international staff and asked national staff to stay at home.
But Save the Children has partnered with other NGOs to try to assess humanitarian needs through text messaging and calling sources around Gaza, according to regional director Annie Foster. Providing the ceasefire holds, an aid distribution is planned for today.
OCHA is also carrying out a quick assessment of needs, which will feed into an appeal for international funding to help Gaza, while World Vision has carried out assessments of food and shelter needs in both north and south Gaza.
Egypt, which brokered the ceasefire, has been heavily involved in diplomatic efforts between Israel and Hamas, trying, observers say, to avoid an escalation in violence.
“If there is an all-out ground offensive, people will want to flee,” said one observer who preferred anonymity. “There will be a challenge to the Egyptian government. Government does not want to deal with that. They are concentrating on conflict prevention.”
Many Egyptians are wary of welcoming too many Gazans on their territory, fearing Palestinians could be driven out of Gaza, and Sinai would become their new homeland.
References in local press to the possible erection of tents in northern Sinai prompted angry reactions, with former army General Sameh Seif Al Yazal advising the Egyptian president not to admit Palestinians and saying on TV: "We are supposed to help the Palestinians of Gaza, but this should not be at the expense of our national security."