A Palestinian woman carrying her son evacuates after their home was hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City May 12, 2021. (CNS photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)

The head of the Gaza office of Catholic Relief Services, an international relief and development agency, said recent air strikes by Israeli forces have exacerbated an existing humanitarian crisis by further limiting electricity and water. Thousands of families have been displaced, increasing the need for access to mental health services. All this, he added, is happening against the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic.

“Frankly speaking, the humanitarian needs were already huge without Covid and without the aggression,” Bassam Nasser, who leads the Gaza office for Catholic Relief Services, told America on May 20. “You can imagine, when you add those two challenges, the crisis will become huge.”

After America spoke with Mr. Nasser, Israeli media reported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet had approved a unilateral cease-fire, ending an 11-day military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli media reported a unilateral cease-fire, ending 11 days of violence in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military.

Mr. Nasser said his team of about 30 staff members, most of whom are Palestinian, has devoted itself to assisting families affected by the Covid-19 pandemic since last March. Many of the agency’s resources are still being offered virtually as people in Gaza have forced themselves into lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The economic fallout has been severe, he said, as employment opportunities for day laborers have dried up. And because of the latest conflict, the worst clash between Israel and Hamas since 2014, families have crowded into makeshift shelters in school buildings, which global health experts fear could lead to a resurgence of disease in the Gaza Strip, where approximately two million people live in an area about double the size of Washington, D.C.

“If you add to the challenges the destruction has caused, we are going to end up with terrible situations in terms of health, education and the economy,” said Mr. Nasser, adding that many families in Gaza have not yet recovered from previous outbreaks of violence dating back to 2008.

Because of the latest conflict, families have crowded into makeshift shelters in school buildings, which global health experts fear could lead to a resurgence of disease in the Gaza Strip.

According to C.R.S., it has helped 1,000 families in Gaza secure safe shelter since 2014. When the fighting stops, the agency expects to assist another 2,000 families with housing and also cash in the form of electronic vouchers that can be used at local vendors once they reopen.

“We will concentrate our work to help displaced families. At a later stage, when it’s safe, we will be assisting them in getting shelter back. Hopefully we can get funding for that,” said Mr. Nasser. C.R.S. works with local partners to help families design new homes and then provides assistance to help with construction costs.

Of immediate concern, however, is dealing with the ongoing pandemic.

“We will concentrate our work to help displaced families," said Bassam. At a later stage, when it’s safe, we will be assisting them in getting shelter back.

Vaccinations and testing have been severely affected by the air strikes, and the United Nations has warned that the progress made in curtailing the virus could come to a halt. Mr. Nasser said his team is working to provide families sheltering in schools with the resources they need to stay safe.

“Our work is to concentrate immediate assistance to these families to help them to cope with the current situation and try to immediately provide the hygiene [equipment] to ensure that in these schools there will not be a spread of virus,” he said. “We have our shelter team going to the schools and considering and assessing if we have to build the big fabric tents, where it can be used as some sort of quarantine, if there are family members at the school who tested positive with Covid.”

The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas began on May 10, when the militant group fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Jews and Muslims. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Israeli government agents had inflamed tensions.

Vaccinations and testing have been severely affected by the air strikes, and the U.N. has warned that the progress made in curtailing the virus could come to a halt.

Since then, Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes that it says have targeted Hamas’ infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network. Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted.

At least 230 Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and militant group Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed.

Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.

Several world leaders, including President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Pope Francis, have urged an end to the ongoing violence.

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Pope Francis, have urged an end to the ongoing violence.

“Where will the hate and vendetta lead?” the pope asked on May 16, addressing pilgrims gathered in Rome. “Do we really think of building peace by destroying the other?”

But even if a cease-fire is possible, Mr. Nasser said many humanitarian challenges will remain that will require coordinated international efforts to address.

“You can never get back your home and your life as it used to be,” he said. “Unfortunately, the people in Gaza feel that they are not counted by the international community.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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