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Sir Nicholas Young: Gaza situation is 'shameful'

26 February 2009

Our chief executive, Sir Nicholas Young, is in Gaza visiting families affected by conflict and volunteers who have been helping them since the conflict began. He sent back this report.

Nick YoungPeter Lawson (BRC)We drove into Gaza at 9.30 this morning (Wednesday 25 February) in our ICRC Land Cruiser, after a careful 80 minute vetting process at the huge airport-like Erez crossing checkpoint. This is the only way in to Gaza at the moment, and it's virtually deserted.

We quickly passed through the makeshift Hamas border post on the other side, drove through the busy streets of Gaza city, much of which is still somehow functioning almost normally, to an area close to the Jubail refugee camp. Dozens of houses had been razed to the ground, a few flimsy tents providing shelter for the surviving inhabitants - twice in the last week tents had been damaged and collapsed by storms.

I talked to two families who preferred to live crouching under the rubble of their former homes. They had lost four family members and their subsistence farming business across the border, which was now beyond reach. A solitary dusty lemon hung from a stick as the only decoration in the gloom.

We saw several cleared areas like this, and stopped in a couple to talk. All denied any link to terrorist activity or any link to the rocket attacks into southern Israel half a mile away.

The saddest was 'Samouni Street', home to the extended family of the same name and now a pile of smashed concrete. Three small girls told us a heartrending story of terror and death, moved out of their houses by troops, their new shelter then bombed, a brother run over by a tank, a mother decapitated and her daughter left sitting by the body.

We met many volunteers of the Palestinian Red Crescent, working closely with the ICRC distributing what little emergency aid is being allowed across the border, giving emotional and psychological support to mothers and children, running small camps, driving the ambulances that kept going through a month of air attacks and occupation.

We saw their headquarters, once a four-storey office block, now a burnt-out wreck, and their Al Quds hospital, hit by shellfire, the 500 patients rapidly evacuated.

No building materials are allowed in, so no work has started on the 10,000 new houses that will be needed, nor on repairs to vital facilities like the hospital. As one father said: "Cement alone is not enough. What use to rebuild if we don't have guarantee of peace and safety?"

Half a mile further on we found a dozen large cement trucks in a builders yard, all turned over on their sides and smashed, tank tracks still clearly visible in the sand. Any hope of rebuilding seems a distant dream.
At the ICRC's offices, we met some of the team that is compiling the ICRC's confidential report on the conduct of hostilities, which will be submitted to both sides. This will contain personal eye witness accounts, video footage, evidence from medical personnel on the injuries suffered and assessments by staff working on the ground. The ICRC works on a confidential bilateral basis with the authorities to maintain access to those affected. This mode of working allows the ICRC to access some of the most difficult places, and only in rare circumstances may its views be made public.

Early in the afternoon we had to break off and head back across the border before the concrete and iron gates of the crossing point clanged shut for the night. Gaza does feel like a prison camp, its population of 1.5 million people held trapped in an area the size of the Isle of Wight, able neither to escape nor summon the help they need.

Until all the parties to the conflict and the world's leaders prioritise the basic needs and rights of these people over power and politics it is hard to see how their predicament will ever be less than shameful.

Sir Nicholas Young
CEO, British Red Cross

Find out more about the Gaza crisis
Listen to Nick's comments on the today programme