Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl, the Gaza Strip

31 May 2018

Good morning,

Thank you for joining us for this press briefing.

My current visit took place in the aftermath of the weeks of protests and marches here in the Gaza Strip and the appalling impact of the events that followed.

Yesterday, I visited an UNRWA health center in Khan Younis, a partner rehabilitation center in Deir El-Balah and the Al-Shifa hospital. These were shocking and deeply disturbing visits.

Allow me to describe this is some detail, focusing on three main dimensions.

First, I truly believe that much of the world completely underestimates the extent of the disaster in human terms that occurred in the Gaza Strip since the marches began on 30 March.

117 people were killed by Israeli forces – of which 13 were children - and over 13,000 people were injured, of which an estimated 3,500 by live ammunition. Let me put this in context.

During the 51 days of the military assault in Gaza in 2014, approximately 12,000 people were injured. In other words, as many people or even slightly more were injured during a total of 7 days of protests than were injured during the full duration of the 2014 conflict. That is truly staggering.

During the visits, I was also struck not only by the number of injured but also by the nature of the injuries. The demonstrators had been systematically shot either in the lower limbs (shattering femurs, knees and ankles), in the abdomen, the back, or the head.

The pattern of small entry wounds and large exit wounds, indicates ammunition used caused severe damage to internal organs, muscle tissue and bones.

Both the staff or the MoPH hospitals, NGOs, and UNRWA clinics are struggling to deal with extremely complex wounds and care.

Second, the direct consequence of the number of injured and nature of wounds has brought the health-care system in Gaza to a breaking point. It is a health system already plagued by the multiple health pressures and severe medical stock limitations under regular circumstances.

When hundreds of injured demonstrators were brought into hospitals on the days of marches -particularly on 14 May - the health structures performed miracles but were overwhelmed.

Thousands of regular interventions - surgical or others - have been suspended or canceled because of the need to focus on the injured and the many surgeries and follow-up treatment they require.

The pressure was so big on hospitals that many patients were discharged early and sent home to allow for the admission of new patients from the next day of demonstrations. UNRWA clinics have to date provided follow-up care for 1,600 such early released patients.

Third, seeing the hundreds of demonstrators with severe injuries to their lower limbs and the number of amputations that already took place and the large number still likely to occur, it was clear that many will live with life-long disabilities.

This means the entire health system in Gaza must prepare for a major upsurge in terms of post-operatic care and in particular with physical rehabilitation needs. This includes the UNRWA clinics and physiotherapy centers.

This morning I am sending out an emergency call for help to save Gaza’s health system and seriously boost UNRWA’s ability to provide care to the released patients and prepare for the many amputees that will require long-term assistance. The call for action and support also concerns mental health and psychosocial care.

The injured and their families are deeply traumatized and this adds another layer of trauma to the many already endured by the people in Gaza. UNRWA has developed a very strong capacity in this regard, but our current funding pressures place this activity under direct threat.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I said at the beginning, Gaza is facing a major human and health-care disaster. It is a crisis of epic proportions, with immeasurable onward consequences.

Palestine refugees represent 70% of the population in Gaza and there are many refugees among the dead and injured. Including young children, for example boys and girls, students of UNRWA schools.

And because I have always refused anonymity in death and suffering, allow me to name the seven UNRWA students who were killed:

Husain, 14 years old
Alla, 16 years old
Mohamad, 14 years old
Jamal, 16 years old
Iz Al Deen, 14 years old
Wesal, 15 years old
Sadi Said, 16 years old

They were part of the 270,000 students in UNRWA schools in Gaza. Over 90% of whom have never left Gaza in their lives; have gone through three wars in their lives; faced multiple traumas resulting from occupation, blockade, violence, and fear.

Dehumanizing an entire community will bring no peace to the region. Recognizing that Palestine refugees have the same rights and aspirations as everyone on this planet, that they have the right to live safely, in freedom, with adequate and essential services and opportunities, is essential.

Courage lies in helping everyone rediscover the humanity in the other. Thank you. 

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.