Aid workers grateful for Gaza ceasefire, but remain wary

Jerusalem, Israel, Aug 5, 2014 / 04:56 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A new 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is offering locals and aid workers invaluable time to safely secure essential supplies, but many remain skeptical that it will bring an end to the region’s ongoing violence.

“Everyone, unfortunately, has become very skeptical of the ceasefires at this point,” said Matthew McGarry, Catholic Relief Services’ representative for Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

“The situation is really getting incredibly desperate in Gaza,” he told CNA Aug. 1, just hours after the failure of an earlier proposed ceasefire.

Israel and Hamas agreed to the new 72-hour ceasefire on Aug. 4, the latest in a string of such agreements after four weeks of violence. More than 1,800 Palestinians and 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed, according to reports.

Since the start of the conflict, four other humanitarian ceasefires have been announced and subsequently violated.

Officials from Israel and Hamas are meeting in Cairo to discuss a permanent solution to the conflict.

In the meantime, Catholic Relief Services’ regional team of 15 is working to reach out to those internally displaced in Gaza. As of Aug. 5, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs placed the number of internally displaced persons in Gaza at 520,000.

Since the fighting began, CRS has distributed survival kits to more than 3,000 individuals. And just last week, the U.S.-based agency secured the funds to distribute kits to an additional 2,500 households.

CRS has also ramped up its voucher programs for locals and established a cash-for-work program for men and women to clean latrines and showers at residential camps for the displaced.

“We’re looking at this being a pretty substantial response,” McGarry explained. “The needs in Gaza are overwhelming. They’re growing day-by-day and nearly a third of the population has been displaced. There’s nowhere left for people to be displaced at this point.”

The majority of internally displaced are seeking refuge in government-run and United Nations-sponsored schools that have been converted into shelters. Catholic Relief Services is focusing its efforts on reaching out to those seeking refuge with relatives or in hospitals, churches and even damaged structures.

“They’re the hardest to find, the most underserved and really they’re the most at-risk,” McGarry explained. “The emphasis now is on getting them food, getting them water.”

Water in Gaza has become a major issue for displaced populations because the region’s aquifer became contaminated when a local power plant was struck by artillery shelling July 29.

“Virtually all of Gaza does not have reliable access to drinking water right now, which is obviously a tremendously dangerous thing, particularly in these hot summer months,” McGarry said.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas was sparked in early June by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, and the subsequent apparent retaliation murder of a Palestinian teen.

McGarry, who has served as CRS’ representative for Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank for two years, said the situation in the region has always been precarious, with the potential for rapid deterioration.

“The events of the last month have really pushed it over the edge,” he reflected. “In talking with the people who we serve in Gaza…the feeling now is that it’s going from a disaster to just an outright catastrophe. It’s on the verge of just complete collapse at this

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