Gaza Situation Report 85

26 March 2015
© 2014 UNRWA Photo by Shareef Sarhan

17 March – 24 March | issue 85


  • The last of a total of 83 UNRWA school buildings impacted by the summer 2014 hostilities was reopened on Sunday, 22 March.  “Hope is a wonderful friend that might disappear, but it will never betray. Happiness is inside your home. Do not search for it in the gardens of stranger,” read 11-year-old Rua’ Kdeih, a Palestine refugee, during the re-opening of Elementary Co-ed A&B school in Khuzaa, Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. The ceremony was attended by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. The poem read by Rua’ is from her book found by UNRWA personnel in the rubble after an entire wing of the school, a toilet block and a boundary wall were destroyed during last summer’s hostilities. Damage and destruction to the building was concurrent with Israeli Defense Force ground operations in and around the vicinity of the school. The Agency financed the repair works of impacted schools, starting on 26 August 2014, with funds from international donors and with the US$ 50,000 from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai. “Those were very dark days for children,” stated the Commissioner-General at the ceremony, in reference to the 50 days of conflict. “It is heartening to witness the return to school here of 1,170 Palestine refugee children,” he added.
  • UNRWA commenced an exceptional food distribution on 22 March as part of its continued early recovery response to the summer 2014 conflict. The distribution to approximately 47,000 families aims at ensuring sufficient access to food for refugees in Gaza; it also serves to inject essential commodities into the local market. The food parcels include rice, flour and oil in quantities according to family size. Benefiting families include newly separated families, those who have applied for food assistance but have not yet been visited, families previously classified as not poor before 2013 and pending results of a complaint and other vulnerable families identified. The distribution comes in addition to the regular food assistance provided to approximately 868,000 refugees and the daily rations that UNRWA is providing to almost 8,000 internally displaced persons sheltering in 13 UNRWA Collective Centres across Gaza. Food parcels will be provided to eligible families via UNRWA’s twelve distribution centres for ten working days, until 2 April. On the first day of distribution 3,302 families collected food parcels and on the second day 4,024 families collected their flour, rice and oil.
  • During the reporting week the Agency provided 831 families with rental subsidies (Transitional Shelter Cash Assistance, TSCA) and 154 families with payments for severe repairs, both with funds totalling US $1.2 million from the German Development Bank KfW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau). In January 2015, UNRWA was forced to suspend its cash assistance programme supporting repairs and providing rental subsidies to Palestine refugee families in Gaza. Through reprogramming of funding and savings as well as receipt of pledges, UNRWA has been able to distribute a total of over US$ 17.7 million to more than 13,500 families since the announcement of the suspension. These payments do not change the fact that only US$ 175 million has been pledged in support of UNRWA’s emergency shelter programme, for which a total of US$ 720 million is required. This leaves a current shortfall of US$ 545 million. UNRWA urgently requires additional funding to allow refugee families with minor damage to repair their homes and to provide on-going rental subsidies (TSCA).
  • Since the start of the emergency shelter response, UNRWA has distributed a total of US$ 93.5 million (excluding Programme Support Costs) to Palestine refugee families. The funding allowed UNRWA to assist some 60,000 families to repair damage to their homes and comes in addition to the rental subsidies that were provided to around 10,800 families whose homes were totally or severely destroyed. Of these families, over 7,600 families also benefited from the reintegration grant. A further 1,270 families whose homes incurred major damage benefited from the reintegration grant. As of 23 March 2015, UNRWA engineers have completed the technical assessment of over 132,000 homes as part of the UNRWA efforts to determine assistance eligibility. Whilst the ongoing appeal review is expected to be concluded shortly, to date over 9,000 Palestine refugee houses have been considered totally destroyed and over 5,000 have suffered severe, over 4,000 major and over 114,000 minor damages. To date, the Agency has only received funding to reconstruct 200 of the over 9,000 houses totally destroyed.
  • On World Water Day – 22 March – the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) released a statement underscoring the importance of water availability to achieve sustainable development. This was also emphasized in UN World Water Day messaging by the UN system. With no perennial streams and low rainfall, Gaza relies almost completely on the underlying coastal aquifer for the provision of clean water. Yet in 2014, 100.8 million cubic metres (MCM) were extracted from the coastal aquifer, far exceeding the recommended yield of 50-60 MCM per year. Consequently, the ground water is declining and the aquifer is infiltrated by sea water and wastewater. This, and the flow of seepage of waste water into the aquifer, has turned Gaza’s water saline. 90 per cent of the water in Gaza is undrinkable and fails the quality standards for safe drinking water of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The UN Gaza 2020 report (PDF, August, 2012) states that in only 25 per cent (30,000 CMC) of waste water was recycled in Gaza and some 90,000 CMC of raw or partly treated sewage was being released daily into the sea. The report furthermore states that the Gaza aquifers may become unusable by 2016 – next year – and damage to it irreversible by 2020. 
  • The IDF Military Advocate General (MAG) has stated that it is launching a criminal investigation into two incidents during the July/August 2014 conflict where UNRWA schools used as Designated Emergency Shelters were either hit directly or struck nearby by shells or other munitions: at Beit Hanoun Elementary Co-educational “A” and “B” School on 24 July 2014 and Jabalia Elementary Girls “A” and “B” School on 30 July.  On both occasions, the schools’ GPS coordinates had been formally conveyed to the Israeli authorities on numerous occasions prior to the strikes.  The United Nations has also been investigating. On 10 November 2014, the Secretary-General established an independent United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into certain incidents that occurred in the Gaza Strip between 8 July and 26 August 2014 and in which death or injuries occurred at, and/or damage was done to, United Nations premises. The Board is an internal mechanism and the findings are submitted to the SG for his further action.  In addition, on 23 July 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in which it decided to establish an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the oPt, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014. The report of the Commission will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June.  
  • A BBC produced documentary called “Saving Gaza’s Grand Piano” about the non-profit organisation “Music Fund” and its activities in Gaza will be broadcast across the United Kingdom this week and next. During March 2014, the BBC crew spent ten days in Gaza with the Music Fund and followed its activities in UNRWA schools, which aim at improving the teaching and learning capacities of teachers and students through music and rhythm. The documentary also focuses on the restoration of a grand piano in a theatre partly destroyed during the 2014 summer conflict.
  • “It is unacceptable that an official EU delegation to Palestine is refused entry to inspect the humanitarian situation and the destruction in Gaza,” Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Martina Anderson stated after a European Union delegation of four people was denied access to the Gaza Strip by the Israeli authorities. The delegation planned to be in Gaza on 18 March and visit an UNRWA school and an UNRWA Collective Centre, as well as assess the sewage overflow outlet in Gaza City’s Beach Camp to get a better picture of the dire water and sanitation crisis prevailing in Gaza. The delegation instead went to East Jerusalem, where they met with UNRWA representatives. Martina Anderson mentioned her willingness to bring the situation in Gaza to the attention of the rest of the world and the frustration of being denied access, when the EU, together with its member states, is the biggest multilateral donor of financial assistance to the Palestinians. “Despite stating clearly that the remit of this delegation was to identify areas in dire need of vital public services such as schools, health centres and food distribution centres, with a purely social, economic and humanitarian focus, we continue to be blocked,” she said. 
  • According to the latest reports, fifty-nine Palestinians recently tried to reach Europe from the shores of Libya. Nine reportedly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on 4 March off the cost of Sicily. “In Gaza, the effects of the occupation, blockade and recurring military campaigns have devastated not only Palestine refugee homes, lives and income, but also hope for a secure and dignified future,” reads a statement by UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness, released on 19 March. The statement highlights that tragedies involving men, women and children drowning at sea stem not only from armed conflict, occupation and a lack of protection of human rights, but more fundamentally from the failure to resolve the Palestine refugee problem. UNRWA’s spokesperson reiterates the obligation and responsibility of the international community, saying: “The international community has, through UNRWA, supported the resilience of Palestine refugees throughout the region since 1950. UNRWA appeals for an urgent increase in this  indispensable assistance, calls for full compliance with obligations under international law and the protection of those fleeing conflict, and stresses the ever-more urgent need for political solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian conflicts so that Palestine refugees can again build for a dignified and secure future.”
  • During the reporting week the Prep Boys C Collective Centre (CC) in Beit Hanoun that hosted 223 internally displaced persons (IDPs) was closed and refurbishment began so that the building could return to its intended function as a school.  The number of UNRWA shelters decreased to 13 across the Gaza Strip. The overall number of IDPs in the CCs has declined to 7,346 persons. From 18 to 24 March the Collective Centre Management Unit (CCMU) distributed 24,374 hot meals to all CCs. The World Food Programme (WFP) has continued to support the IDPs with a total of 17,393 bread bags distributed during the same period. 
  • The Ambassador of Brazil, His Excellency Paolo Francą visited the UNRWA Rimal Health Centre in Gaza City on 23 March to see the impact of Brazil’s medical support for Palestine refugees in Gaza. The Brazilian Government has donated five emergency kits (35 boxes of medical supplies) to UNRWA to support the Agency’s ongoing efforts to provide basic medical assistance to its beneficiaries. Ambassador Francą has voiced strong support for the people of Gaza during the recent hostilities and Brazil, “in addition to the medical kits, is contributing to giving the most vulnerable in Gaza a chance to survive in a consistently challenging environment,” commented Deputy Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Mr Scott Anderson, on the visit. Brazil is an important donor to UNRWA and has supported Palestine refugees through the Agency with almost US$ 9 million since 2011, in addition to 11,500 metric tonnes of rice.
  • With a smile in one eye and a tear in the other, UNRWA announces the departure of its long-serving Deputy Directors - Mr Christer Nordahl (operations) and Mr Scott Anderson (programmes). Mr Nordahl has worked for the Agency in Gaza for over 14 years and retires from the UN in this post; Mr Anderson for the past seven. Both will be missed and the Agency wishes them the very best in their next endeavours. With both Deputies departing Gaza in late March, UNRWA has restructured its Front Office and introduced three Deputy roles. Mrs. Siobhan Parnell, with UNRWA in Gaza for the past three years, will be joined by new Gaza Field Office arrivals - Mr David de Bold (formerly with UNRWA HQ) and Ms Melinda Young (new to UNRWA), in the roles of Deputy Directors of Programme Integration, Operations and Programme Implementation respectively. UNRWA is delighted to welcome the new deputies on board.

General

Operational environment: Politics of the region featured prominently in the news during the reporting period, with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud winning the legislative elections in Israel on 17 March with 30 seats in the 120-seats Knesset. His challenger Isaac Herzog from the Zionist Union came second with 24 seats. The joint Arab list gathered 14 seats. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is currently concluding consultations with the Knesset factions in order to choose a member to be tasked with the formation of the next government.

According to media outlets the Egyptian army has demolished up to 1,020 houses in Rafah (Egyptian side) in order to proceed with the second phase of the establishment of a 500 metres buffer zone along the border with Gaza. 

Gaza and its people are becoming more isolated; families fear and worry that in addition to the devastated economy and the stalled political environment, the future of their children is also under siege. 

During the reporting period, daily protests and civil unrest continued outside UN installations and INGO offices with protestors demanding an end to the electricity problem in the Gaza Strip or the release of prisoners from Israeli jails. The Agency has also noted an increase in petty crimes in Gaza.

On 23 March, NGOs held a sit in in solidarity with Tunisian people and condemned the Bardo Museum’s crime. On 24 March, approximately 100 persons held a sit-in demanding information about their relatives believed to have perished in the deadly shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea last year.

UNRWA Response

“Life as a counsellor”

“Humans have a stronger capacity than we realise,” says counsellor Khitam Qatamesh, seen here working with children in an UNRWA school in Gaza City. Khitam helps children to better cope with the extreme challenges they face on a daily basis. © 2015 UNRWA

“Humans have a stronger capacity than we realise,” says counsellor Khitam Qatamesh, seen here working with children in an UNRWA school in Gaza City. Khitam helps children to better cope with the extreme challenges they face on a daily basis. © 2015 UNRWA Photo/Gaza.

In a concrete school classroom in downtown, ramshackle, Gaza City, 36-year old Khitam Qatamesh is standing on one leg, giggling wildly and encouraging the ten, young, female fifth-grade students standing in a circle around her, to do the same. Timid at first, the girls follow her direction. Smiles eventually transform the once serious faces.

The exhibition of gaiety may seem frivolous at first encounter. But amongst a populace that has faced three conflicts in the past seven years, and witnessed endless violence, displacement and destruction, emotions are always multi-layered in the Gaza Strip.  

Khitam, a Palestine refugee, is part of the UNRWA Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP) team. She joined the CMHP to help empower vulnerable refugees in Gaza, especially children, to better cope with the extreme challenges they face on a daily basis. She said the impact of stress from the ongoing blockade, continued conflict, extreme poverty, and gender-based violence have led to an influx of intense fear, bed-wetting, poor concentration, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, irritability and hyperactivity amongst Gaza’s young. If left untreated, she says, children can face the risk of anti-social behaviour and become more susceptible to negative influences.  Khitam suggests that helping children make sense of their repeated nightmares is often the place to start. 

For thirteen years the university trained counsellor has been listening to the stories of Gaza’s people. Child by child, parent by parent and teacher by teacher she has sat patiently, taking notes systematically in her reference notepad. Once broad mental health exercises have become more specialized, as her team learned more about the specific issues confronting people in Gaza. But the stories of personal tragedy are boundless in the Gaza Strip, and despite her training, she admits there is often a heavy toll. “The experience of dealing with people traumatized due to the war of 2008-2009 was the worst,” Khitam says. “We went to houses at Al Maghazi Area which was one of the most affected areas and it seemed everyone we spoke with had lost a loved one.” 

Individual unease or unpacking the impact of life under occupation and through conflicts is difficult to talk about and make sense of. “At first, people were so cautious involving their children in counselling sessions or even admitting that they as parents and their children needed help,” Khitam said. “But slowly things have changed, and parents are now approaching us for consultation on (mental health) issues related to their children’s behaviour.”

Khitam also knows what it is like to change a mind-set; the daughter of conservative parents, she had to fight hard for her chosen profession to be accepted at home. Teaching was the employment option approved by her father, and it was only with strong results during her mental health degree at university that she began to be taken seriously in pursuing a career in counselling. 

For UNRWA, a gender-balanced mental health team is crucial as women in Gaza are very reluctant to talk to male counsellors. Khitam also notes differences in the impact trauma can have on male and female children. 

Despite the scale of the issues impacting people in Gaza, the proud Palestinian said she finds strength every day in the people she works with. “Humans have stronger capacity than we realise,” she said. With each story shared, she said, “the pain does become less.”

Summary of Major Incidents

During the reporting week, IDF troops fired at Palestinians near the fence with Israel or at Palestinian boats on a daily basis. It was reported that on 19 March IDF bulldozers and one tank entered Gaza approximately 100 metres into east of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip and conducted a clearing operation before withdrawing. On 20 March the Egyptian Navy allegedly fired warning shots towards Palestinian boats approaching Egyptian waters forcing them towards the North. One boat was confiscated and nine fishermen were arrested. On 19 March militants reportedly fired two test rockets towards the sea; on 22 March they fired three test rockets towards the sea.

Funding Needs

US$ 175 million has been pledged in support of UNRWA’s emergency shelter programme, for which a total of US$ 720 million is required. This leaves a current shortfall of US$ 545 million. UNRWA urgently requires US$ 100 million in the first quarter of 2015 to allow refugee families with minor damage to repair their homes and to provide ongoing rental subsidies. 
As presented in UNRWA’s oPt Emergency Appeal, the Agency is seeking USD 366.6 million for its 2015 emergency operations in Gaza, including USD 127 million for emergency shelter, repair and collective centre management, USD 105.6 million for emergency food assistance, and USD 68.6 million for emergency cash-for-work. More information can be found here (PDF).

Crossings

  • The Rafah Crossing remained closed from 17 to 24 March.
  • The Erez crossing was open for National ID holders (humanitarian cases, medical cases, merchants and UN staff) and for international staff during the reporting week. On 20 March Erez crossing was open for pedestrians only. It was closed on 21 March. 
  • Kerem Shalom was open between 17 to 19 and 22 to 24 March. It was closed on 20 and 21 March. 
UNRWA launched the #DignityIsPriceless campaign in Gaza on 22 January 2018. © 2018 UNRWA Photo Rushdi Al Saraj
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