17 March – 24 March | issue 85
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.
“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.”
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.
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).