Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross is an "impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance." It also tries "to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles."
It's legally mandated to do it under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and has had a permanent presence in Gaza since 1968. Currently 109 ICRC staff work there, including 19 expatriates. They remained throughout Operation Cast Lead and witnessed firsthand the carnage and destruction that took place.
Cooperatively with the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), they evacuated hundreds of people, some severely wounded in the conflict. As able, they also repaired power and water supply lines and provided hospitals with vital medicines and supplies. In addition, ICRC surgeons performed operations in Gaza's Shifa Hospital working alongside Palestinian doctors.
Post-conflict, ICRC and PRCS collected information on Israeli violations of international humanitarian laws. They also distributed vital items, including plastic sheeting, cooking sets, mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits, and more to over 72,000 Gazans whose homes were partially or totally destroyed.
ICRC is currently providing eight hospitals with medicines, other medical supplies, equipment, spare parts, and is helping with needed repairs. It's also fitting amputees with artificial limbs and offering needed physiotherapy.
It's helping to upgrade water and sanitation services to keep Gaza's water network running as best it can. It's aiding farmers and others with land rehabilitation, compost production, and "cash-for-work." It promotes international humanitarian law and calls on all sides to observe it.
In June 2009, it issued a report titled, "Gaza: 1.5 million people trapped in despair" that described the Territory as "look(ing) like the epicentre of a massive earthquake" in the wake of Operation Cast Lead and went on to detail how severely.
No Reconstruction Allowed - Public Health at Risk
Despite billions pledged for reconstruction, practically none of it has come because of Israel's tight embargo on virtually everything needed. As a result, thousands of displaced and destitute families live in cramped quarters with relatives or in tents as their only other alternative.
Some emergency repairs were carried out, but "only to the already unsatisfactory level prevailing before December 2008." Overall, the infrastructure is inadequate, overloaded, and subject to breakdown. Although chlorine is available to disinfect water, sewage and other waste matter seepage remains a major threat to public health. Each day, 69 million liters of partially or untreated effluent are pumped into the Mediterranean for lack of an ability to handle it.
Poor Access to Health Care
Gaza's health care system is in disrepair and can't adequately treat patients with serious illnesses. In addition, with the Territory under siege and a strict embargo imposed, most people can't leave to seek care elsewhere. Those allowed out endure a bureaucratic nightmare and wait months before permission is granted. For some, it's too late and for others their condition has worsened.
Twenty-six year old Do'aa is typical. She has pancreatic cancer, needs surgery, yet explains her despair. "At first, there was hope that I would be given an operation, but as time went by I stopped hoping. I am in pain and I know all too well that my disease is life threatening." She's waited six months for permission, so far not granted.
Reaching Jordan is no easy task. It requires passing through Erez crossing into Israel and doing it is arduous. ICRC describes the process:
"Patients on life-support machines have to be removed from ambulances and placed on stretchers, then carried 60 - 80 metres through the crossing to ambulances waiting on the other side. Patients who can walk unassisted may face extensive questioning before they are allowed through the crossing for medical treatment - or, as sometimes happens, before they are refused entry into Israel and turned back."
As for treatment in Gaza, everything needed falls short. What's available comes from the Palestinian Authority's (PA) Ministry of Health in the West Bank, but the supply chain is unreliable given obstacles that Israel imposes and tensions between Fatah and Hamas.