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NW Aid Team Spends New Year’s Eve in Gaza Conflict

December 31, 2008

Auburn, WA – What a way to spend New Year's Eve. A team from Mercy Corps is in the Gaza Strip, rounding up emergency aid supplies for people panicked by the fighting that has killed or injured at least 1,000 in the past few days. The Portland-based global relief agency has been running job programs in Gaza, where the unemployment rate is almost 50 percent, since 2005.

The man who heads Mercy Corps' Gaza Strip and West Bank projects was home on holiday leave in Auburn, Washington, when fighting intensified again in the long-troubled area. Andrew Dwonch says that in order to keep people working, they've had to change from construction to sewing projects in recent months, because building supplies ran out. And now, he adds, the needs have shifted to include water, fuel, shelter and medical supplies.

"It's often a difficult conflict to understand, but the one thing that's clear is that civilians of Gaza are paying a heavy price for what these armed groups and the Israeli military are doing. Hopefully, with help from the U.S. public, we'll be able to provide some immediate assistance."

Dwonch has been in touch with his Gaza crew by phone and email. About 30 live there full-time; others are stuck outside the area and have not been allowed to return. They've told him the main power plant may be shut down, which will increase the need for emergency aid. The possibility of a 48-hour truce between Israel and Hamas was raised on Tuesday, although Dwonch is not optimistic.

"I don't think that, at this point, either party seems to have the will to back down. Obviously we're very concerned that this could go on for quite a long time and get much worse than it is already."

The team has had to buy its supplies within Gaza, where they are more expensive, because most incoming trucks are being stopped for security reasons. Dwonch says Mercy Corps has stepped up negotiations to get outside supplies through two checkpoints if possible. The agency also has set up a fund for Gaza relief and will post updates on its Web site: www.mercycorps.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR