“We need to protect civilians from explosive remnants of war”
The lives of civilians in the Gaza Strip are still at risk from explosive remnants of war, one year after the start of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups. Active in Gaza since 1996, Handicap International has been conducting risk education activities to help prevent accidents in the future. Guillaume Zerr, the head of Handicap International’s mission in the Palestinian Territories, explains more.
A Handicap International information stand on Mine Action Awareness Day with information to protect people from the dangers of unexploded weapons. Gaza. | © Tom Shelton / Handicap International
What are conditions like for people living in Gaza today?
One year after the conflict that cost the lives of more than 2,100 people and left more than 11,000 others injured, the residents of Gaza are still in danger. Despite the relative ceasefire, people are killed or injured every week by explosive remnants of war left over from the conflict which broke out in the summer of 2014. During my last visit to Gaza in June, I saw the extent to which families are exposed to this danger. In a lot of districts, there are so many explosive remnants of war on the ground that people can’t move around without risk to their lives.
These weapons are delaying efforts to reconstruct the Gaza Strip. Because unexploded munitions or shells might be hidden under the rubble, it’s impossible to clear it. It will take years before operators remove them all.
The reconstruction effort has barely begun, mostly because the Israeli blockade makes it very difficult to import materials. Our teams face the same supply problems as everyone else, even though the needs in the field - particularly for the most vulnerable people - are huge. People who live with disabilities caused by injuries sustained during the war are still unable to live in dignity and autonomously. People whose homes have been destroyed in bombing raids have not been rehoused, and even people displaced by previous conflicts are still without a roof.
What action is Handicap International taking?
Last summer, our teams already present in the field provided support to the most vulnerable people, mainly by distributing walking aids and providing rehabilitation care. Since March, we have organised risk education sessions on explosive remnants of war to prevent more people from falling victims to these weapons. This is our priority. The 50-day conflict was incredibly violent. And even after the end of the fighting, explosive remnants continue to pose a threat to people living here.
To save lives, it is vital that they learn the right way to react in the presence of these weapons.
We have already conducted some 700 risk education sessions on explosive remnants of war. More than 5,000 adults and children have benefited from these sessions since March 2015.
Another team assesses damaged or destroyed buildings to determine the level and type of risks posed by the potential presence of explosive engines in order to speed up the reconstruction effort.
We have been present in Gaza since 1996. The organisation works with local organisations in the fields of functional rehabilitation and psychosocial support, provides support to non-profit organisations and has been working in the field of education since 2014.
What are your priorities for sustainably improving the lives of people in Gaza?
Explosive remnants of war are central to this issue. They need to be identified and destroyed before the reconstruction effort can really get underway. If we want the residents of Gaza to get back on with their lives, we can’t abandon them to the threat from these weapons. This is also an essential prerequisite for restoring basic services, such as education and health.