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The Courage of Humanitarian Aid Workers in Gaza

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This week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would make available $47 million in humanitarian aid in response to the warfare in Gaza that has led to the deaths, as of this writing, of 29 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians and 690 people in Gaza, 70 percent of whom were civilians according to United Nations sources. [The numbers change--increase--by the second: CNN reported this morning that there had been 732 Palestinians killed and 35 Israelis, three of the latter civilians]

What does it mean to be delivering humanitarian aid in the middle of a region in which bombings of purportedly military targets destroy civilian homes and hospitals? Jenny Lei Ravelo has an article in the latest issue of Devex asking such questions as "How can organizations actually deliver aid and continue to implement their projects? How are they able to get a parcel of food from point A to B? How can one possibly coordinate operations not knowing where the next projectile will land?" Ravelo talked to Arwa Mhanna, a media and communications officer for Oxfam in Gaza, who reported that Oxfam staff was working from their homes because of a "projectile" that landed near the Oxfam offices not long ago. But even at their homes, Oxfam personnel face personal danger from missile hits, try to deal with situations such as the power going off and desalinization plants damaged and destroyed, and witness people they are trying to help getting killed in the streets.

At ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid), the U.S.-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides relief to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Lebanon, and the occupied West Bank, the communications officer for ANERA's Gaza operations, Rania Elhilou, has been writing a daily blog documenting what it has been like to be living through the Israeli bombardments while trying to deliver humanitarian aid. Her stories are inspiring and frightening at the same time:

July 10, 2014: "For the third day the bombings have been incessant. I haven't been getting any sleep and, last night, the kids didn't. I hear explosions constantly. I do my best to keep the children busy with activities, to get their minds off of what's going on outside our building. We play games, color, read stories. I want to make sure their fear doesn't turn into trauma. I am not sure where I am getting the strength to hide my fear and play games--maybe it's because I feel that the children are more important than anything else."

July 11, 2014: "Well, we're alive. It was another terrible night. The park behind our apartment building was bombed and the explosion rocked the whole area. The noise was deafening"This morning we saw we are really low on milk. My husband ventured out to a nearby store. While he was away, my heart pounded with worry and I watched for him every second he was away. Turns out that the errand was all for nothing, as the store is out of milk. Now we have to find other options for feeding our baby."

July 12, 2014: "We've been getting about 6 hours of electricity a day, but yesterday ours went off after 2 hours because a bomb apparently hit some infrastructure that delivered it to our place. We now camped out in the center of our apartment, as far away from the windows as possible. Flying glass causes the most injuries".My daughter has been through three of these bombardments--first in my womb in 2008--09, then in 2012 and now in 2014. I can see the question marks in her eyes. What do I tell her? Is there an adequate word to describe this situation?"

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July 13, 2014: "We've had no sleep for 7 days. Yesterday was really intense: there were bombings from the sea and air and I also heard the sounds of rockets launching. I see smoke billowing from the middle area and beaches of Gaza"We always live ready to flee in a second. Our bags packed with passports, money and valuables. We never change into pajamas--ready to go outdoors or to meet God."

July 14, 2014: "I have no words to describe what is happening here. How do I answer my daughter's questions, why this is happening to us. She is only 5 and already she has lived through so much. What can I say to her? I try to keep her busy but the bombings never stop and she's scared". Everyone is exhausted. I feel hopeless and helpless, wondering what will happen to my life and my children."

July 15, 2014: "My husband and I are having a serious conversation about what we should do in the case of a ground incursion. We think we may need to leave our home. But where do we go? Where is safe? As I write this, my daughter is asking if she can put on a dress and go outside to play with her friends. Such a simple request! But doing the simplest things now look like bold acts of courage--or lunacy."

July 16, 2014: "At midnight we evacuated our house. From the building behind ours, women and children were streaming out crying and in a panic. We yelled to them from our window and found out that someone had gotten a call from the Israelis saying that the building should be evacuated. When that happens, you have 58 seconds to get out before the bombs start falling"We rushed on foot to my brother-in-law's apartment, holding our children and our few bags. When we got there, we watched the news carefully to find out if our area was bombed. Thankfully it wasn't. Turns out that the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding" I (had) had to leave my home fully believing I'd likely never see it again. At least it's still there. For many in Gaza, the worst has happened and their homes and family are gone."

July 17, 2014: "Time has lost all meaning for me. I have to think--this is Thursday, it's the 20th day of Ramadan and the 9th day of bombings. I am exhausted to the core and find that my mind isn't working very well. Like the words I am writing now are not easy to find. In the past few nights, our 5-year-old has been waking up screaming several times throughout the night. She screams, then she goes right back to sleep. It's like she is storing the fear she feels all the time and lets it out in these bursts she can't control. Will she ever recover from the psychological wounds she is suffering?"

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July 18, 2014: One of my worst fears from the beginning of these bombings has come true: there is now a ground incursion into Gaza. We are being hit from three sides -- north, east and west. Last night the shelling from the sea was particularly intense. Somehow those bombs feel more random and so they are much more frightening to us.

We heard on the radio that 80% of the electricity grid has been destroyed"Not having electricity means that we also will be running out of water, because our apartment buildings rely on electricity to pump the water into the apartments. Normally we might call a water tanker truck to come and fill our water tank on the roof of the building, but it also is not safe for them to go out. So, now in addition to everything else, we are worried that we are going to run out of water. We have enough for 3 or 4 days, but then what?"

July 19, 2014: "We've packed a small suitcase with some essentials. It's ready by the door. Joudy, our daughter, asked, 'Where are we traveling to, mama?' If only""

July 20, 2014: "I feel like every day I say that the last 24 hours were the worst so far. You think it couldn't get worse and then it does. Last night was really bloody and scary. There was heavy targeting of Shaja'ya, a neighborhood in the northeast of Gaza. The area was cut off and even ambulances couldn't get in, despite the urgent requests of the ICRC. The sky was lit up with flames. I keep hearing reports of the dead and injured. Over 60 people so far have been found dead and there will certainly be more in the rubble of the houses. Hundreds of people have camped out in front of Al Shifa Hospital. They have lost members of their families, their homes and possessions. They have nowhere to go and are desperate. It breaks my heart."

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Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

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The fact sheet issued by the U.S. Department of St... by Rick Cohen on Thursday, Jul 24, 2014 at 8:56:49 AM