Interview: CARE's Martha Myers


GENEVA — With Israel's unilateral ceasefire holding for the moment and Hamas offering its own ceasefire for at least the next week, a top priority for aid organizations is to rush emergency relief to civilians dislocated by the attack.

"The unilateral ceasefire doesn't make a huge difference to the humanitarian situation on the ground," said Martha Myers, the international aid organization CARE's country director for the West Bank and Gaza, who spoke from Jerusalem. "We still have huge numbers of injured people, and we still have thousands of people who have been displaced and who don't have food or water."

In an interview with GlobalPost, Myers, who manages the largest international NGO operation on the ground in Gaza, compared the territory's current state to a tsunami, in which the initial wave has headed back out to sea after leaving a wide swath of devastation behind it. One difference, Myers said, is that humanitarian organizations are still being denied access on the ground, and they are not being allowed to bring supplies into an area that has already been seriously debilitated by an 18-month blockade.

"The Israelis will control access, and it is not clear that they are going to lift the blockade," said Myers. "It is important to bear in mind that the Gaza strip has been blockaded for a year and a half. It isn't just recovering from a war. You are dealing with a population, economy and infrastructure that are completely debilitated, and people who are on their knees because there hasn't been fuel, electricity or spare parts for a year and a half."

She said aid organizations are particularly concerned about long-term psychological effects caused by three weeks of intense bombing and artillery barrages. "We are seeing the behavior in Gaza of a population that was originally traumatized during the 1987 Intifada," Myers said. "The guys fighting in the streets today were the children of the original Intifada. They saw their homes destroyed. They saw their fathers dragged off to prison. They saw their siblings beaten in the street. Brutalization makes people brutal."

Myers says that many people ask her why Palestinian forces did not stop the violence from their end. Exposure to violence, she said, makes people violent. Roughly 56 percent of Gaza's population is under the age of 18, and 320,000 children are under the age of five. Even before the violence, 50,000 children were suffering from malnutrition because of the blockade, and two thirds were experiencing Vitamin A deficiency. Nearly half the children under the age of two were anemic.

"If we extrapolate from the last three weeks," said Myers, "We end up with large numbers of children with serious psychological and adjustment problems for years to come. One should not underestimate the concepts of honor and revenge in Palestinian culture, which is something that is shared around the Mediterranean basin. A lot of innocent people have lost a great deal. This is not a place where people turn the other cheek. Not for Israelis and not for Palestinians. You have people who are brutalized and hurt, and it is an environment where restoring honor and seeking revenge are important."

"This is a situation that is very hard to deal with," said Myers, "but it can be done. But we need to move, assistance-wise, and the international community needs to move politically."

"The fact of the matter is that Israelis have the dominant capacity here," she said. "They need to make sure that the level of violence is not so high that humanitarian aid cannot be delivered. We have not had reports of domestic resistance killing health workers or blowing up people's houses in the last three weeks. It is the Israelis who are the strong party, and they need to take responsibility and assure that we can move around without being harmed. We need crossings to open and materials to flow in. We need the Israelis to remove their arbitrary and very narrow list of what constitutes humanitarian aid. On the international political level, we need a negotiated ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table in good faith, with benchmarks that are enforced for all parties."

Myers said that CARE also expects to be involved in trying to help displaced civilians obtain shelter. "For Palestinians, their family and their homes are the most important elements in their lives. If you want to help them stand on their feet again, there isn't anything better that you can do for them than help them get their homes back together."

The one incontrovertible achievement of the ceasefire, Myers said, is the fact that her staff can now get some relief from the constant airstrikes and artillery. "I talked to them today," she said, "and they were more cheerful than I had seen them in a long time. I think it is largely because they managed to get some sleep. When we had a particularly bad time a few days ago, I had staff and friends who had not been to sleep for 36 hours because of the shelling."