Czechs confuse humanitarian crisis in Gaza with politics, says NGO worker

Israeli soldiers take up positions near the Gaza Strip border

The war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has been going on for over two months, with a devastating impact on the civilian population. Caritas is one of the NGOs that is there trying to help, and is also calling for an immediate ceasefire – in stark contrast to the Czech government, who voted against such a move. I spoke to Lenka Pipková, Foreign Communications Manager at Caritas Czech Republic to find out more about the difficulties of raising money for the appeal and what the situation is like on the ground.

Lenka Pipková | Photo: Anaïs Chesnel,  Radio Prague International

“It’s very difficult to find words to describe what the humanitarian situation in Gaza is like. ‘Catastrophe’ is not even a strong enough word.

"There are about 1.9 million people who have been displaced, many of them repeatedly. There is nowhere to go, no safe place. There are not even basic things like water or food, there is a really high risk of famine.

“Of course, the ongoing hostilities make it impossible to distribute humanitarian aid to the vast majority of the Gaza Strip so it's really bad and it's getting worse. And unfortunately, there is no sign of any improvement in the near future."

What is Caritas doing to help on the ground?

"Caritas Jerusalem, our partner organisation, have been working in the Gaza Strip for a very long time. They have their own clinic and they mainly focus on healthcare. Unfortunately, because of the damage and the hostilities, it is no longer possible to provide healthcare in this clinic.

Photo: Adel Hana,  ČTK/AP

"But they have set up some temporary clinics in churches in the north, which they opened literally days after the war started. And during the temporary humanitarian ceasefire [in late November], they managed to very quickly open three health centres in the south which operated during the temporary ceasefire.

"Also they have some possibilities to distribute a limited amount of humanitarian aid, basic things like food and some non-food items. So this is what we are focusing on at the moment, and of course we are trying to make sure that more humanitarian aid can enter the Gaza Strip and get to the people that really need it."

The majority of Czech politicians and the media are very much in support of Israel and some politicians have even said things to the effect that financial aid to Gaza should stop because it is funding Hamas. Islamophobia also seems to be fairly prevalent among the Czech population in general. Do any of these factors make it difficult to convince the public to give financial support to Gaza?

"Yes, the situation within the Czech Republic is very complicated because I think people mix two different things together - politics and the humanitarian situation.

Photo: Fatima Shbair,  ČTK/AP

"We are a humanitarian organisation, so we of course look at the humanitarian side of the whole conflict. We don't really comment on whose right it is or not, so I think this is something that makes it very complicated for some people to understand what is happening and why the need is there.

"I understand the concerns that some people have, that the aid will end up in the hands of Hamas. Of course, no one can guarantee 100 percent that it will not, but the vast majority we can guarantee. For example, through Caritas, we know exactly where the aid goes. So I think this shouldn't really be stopping anyone from providing help to over 2 million people who are in a very dire situation."

Caritas is one of the NGOs calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic was one of 10 countries that voted against a UN resolution calling for one. Why is Caritas' position different to that of the official stance of the Czech government, and what would you say to people who are against a ceasefire?

"I think it's very much related to what I just described - we are a humanitarian organisation. Caritas helps people who are in humanitarian need - this is our aim, our goal, and what we focus on.

“So of course, from this perspective, without a ceasefire it is not possible to provide humanitarian aid to this huge amount of people who need it, who have nowhere to go, and who don't even have drinking water or food. It is not possible because the ongoing fighting prevents humanitarian organisations from reaching the people that they need to reach.

"I think this is a very clear reason why we need to call for a ceasefire and there is no other possibility. Again, we are not discussing the politics - who is right, who is not right, what should be the solution to the conflict - but we are saying there are 2.3 million people who desperately need humanitarian aid and we need to provide it. And the only way to secure it is a ceasefire so that the distribution can happen."

If people want to help, how can they?

"On the Caritas Czech Republic website, which is, you can donate to the Caritas for Gaza appeal. The website is also in English, the donation is also possible in English, so it's possible for everybody to contribute.

"People who are interested can also join the ceasefire petition which can also be found online."