30 May 2015
19 May - 27 May/Issue 94
• Gaza’s unemployment rate - at 43.9 per cent - is now the highest in the world, according to the latest World Bank economic update. Even more alarming is the situation of youth unemployment which soared to more than 60 percent by the end of 2014. The report was presented to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), a principal policy-level coordination mechanism for development assistance to the Palestinian people, at the bi-annual meeting in Brussels on May 27, 2015. According to the report Gaza’s GDP would have been about four times higher than it currently is if it weren’t for the conflicts and multiple restrictions. It also considers that the Israeli imposed blockade, in place since 2007, has resulted in a 50 per cent decrease of Gaza’s GDP. The report further states that in 2014 the average monthly salary in Gaza amounted to US$ 174; with a poverty rate of 39 per cent, an 11 per cent increase from 2013. Real per capita income – approximately US$ 970.3 in 2014 – is 31 per cent lower than it was 20 years ago, while the population has at the same time increased by 230 per cent. The last conflict has exacerbated the already dismal situation. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that the July/August hostilities have resulted in a US$ 460 million decrease of the Strip’s output; the massive destruction has led to losses close to US$ 4.4 billion. The report also highlights that Gaza's population suffers from poor access to social services and underlines the alarming quality of basic public services such as electricity, water, and sewerage. Nearly 80 percent of the population receives social assistance, and nearly 40 percent of them still fall below the poverty line. In a press release featuring key highlights from the report, Mr Steen Lau Jorgensen, World Bank Country Director for West Bank and Gaza, said: “The ongoing blockade and the 2014 war have taken a toll on Gaza’s economy and people's livelihoods. Gaza’s exports virtually disappeared and the manufacturing sector has shrunk by as much as 60 percent. The economy cannot survive without being connected to the outside world.”
• The challenging economic situation in Gaza is further exemplified by high and volatile food prices, especially for fresh commodities. Prices in Gaza started to increase after the closure of the tunnels with Egypt mid-2013. This volatility is particularly concerning for vulnerable households living in poverty. According to UNRWA’s internal monitoring, April 2015 food prices are 12 per cent above June 2013 levels. These prices increased by 7.5 per cent compared to the previous month, reaching the highest level since November 2014. Seasonality factors only partially explain the higher prices of fresh produce, political decisions are key drivers. Sources indicate that employees of the Palestinian Authority have received in April all pending payments as a result of the Israeli decision to release approximately half a billion US$ in tax revenues that it had previously withheld, hence stimulating local consumption. Furthermore, for the first time since 2007, limited exports to Israeli markets were permitted in March. In an insular market such as Gaza, linked to the outside world by one single crossing point, prices are not driven primarily by supply and demand; sudden price fluctuations are mostly due to bureaucratic or political decisions taken by Israeli and Egyptian authorities, and are almost entirely borne by the poor. This challenging economic context explains that although food may be available on the market the majority of the population cannot access it because it is not affordable. Currently almost 868,000 Palestine refugees depend on food aid from UNRWA – half of Gaza’s 1.76 million total population and more than 65 per cent of the registered refugee population.
• “I cannot but recall the shock of my first very brief tour of the destruction of the Shujjaiya neighbourhood,” said the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Mr. Nickolay Mladenov, about Gaza on 19 May, during his briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the situation in the Middle East. “No one can remain untouched by the scale of devastation, the slow pace of reconstruction, and the vast needs to rebuild lives and livelihood,” he stated. The Special Coordinator also mentioned the anger and frustration that he witnessed in Gaza, warning of a possible implosion of Gaza and reminding the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, as well as the United Nations and the international community of the ‘humanitarian imperative’ to prevent it. He also emphasized the importance of free movement of goods and people as well as the eventual reopening of the crossings as a key factor for the alleviation of the suffering in Gaza.
• The Special Coordinator’s speech to the Security Council came ahead of his report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) being held in Brussels on 27 May, 2015. The report highlights that the coming period will be critical for the future of the peace process. It also underscores the United Nations’ warning that maintaining the status quo will inexorably lead to the continued erosion of living conditions for Palestinians and for Israelis alike, undermining the security and stability of all. The report reiterates the call on the new Government of Israel to take credible steps to reaffirm its commitment to a two-state solution. Regarding Gaza, the report once again emphasizes the call for lifting all closures within the framework of Security Council resolution 1860 (2009) in a manner which addresses Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The Office of the Quartet Representative also submitted a report to the AHLC. On Gaza, it states that all involved, including respective governments and international donors who pledged assistance at the October 2014 Cairo Conference, need to “take responsibility immediately to take Gaza out of its continuing deadlock.”
• The Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Mr Robert Turner, has announced his intention to leave his post in mid-July, after serving with the Agency since May, 2012. In a press release announcing his departure date of 15 July, Mr. Turner described his time in Gaza as “the most rewarding and challenging three years” of his career and assured that he will continue to advocate for Gaza and Palestine refugees even after his departure. “I refuse to yield to pessimism,” he stated. “Gaza is a place where the human spirit has shown its indomitability time and time again.” Mr. Turner has served in Gaza through two conflicts. His term comes amid one of the most severe financial crises the Agency has seen in its history. “Bob’s contribution has been extraordinary at a very demanding time for the Agency and the refugees we serve”, said UNRWA Commissioner General, Pierre Krähenbühl. “His leadership of our response to the Gaza conflict last summer rightly won UNRWA and his team in Gaza widespread admiration. I take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of all of us in the Agency.”
• The Government of Saudi Arabia has substantially increased its support for Palestine refugees in the Middle East, signing seven agreements totalling US$ 111.5 million in assistance through UNRWA. The contribution will be divided over the five UNRWA fields; however, the largest portion – US$ 74 million – is for Gaza enabling Palestine refugees to repair their homes damaged during last summer’s conflict and in support of health and education programmes. This brings total contributions from Saudi Arabia through SFD to nearly half a billion dollars since 1994, with Saudi Arabia now the Agency’s third-largest donor for the second year running.
• This week, 51 families signed the undertaking for their new homes in the Khan Younis Rehousing Project. They join 20 families who already co-signed last week in line with the Agency’s policy of co-signing between husbands and wives. The Rehousing Project, funded by the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent with US$ 19.7 million, offers 600 new housing units in total. The construction of the housing units started in 2007, yet works stalled in the following three years due to the Israeli imposed blockade. In 2010, when access to construction material became possible for the UN under an agreed mechanism with Israel, 151 housing units were built and have since housed refugee families. In 2014, UNRWA resumed the construction of the remaining 449 units which were completed this spring.
• UNRWA continues to work to provide shelter for refugee families whose home was damaged or demolished during the previous 2014 summer conflict. During the reporting week more than US$ 282,500 in funding, available for cash assistance for rental subsidies, repair works and reintegration grants, was disbursed and will reach 219 refugee families across the Gaza Strip. The families will either receive assistance via cheque or access the payments through local banks. To date, over 60,000 Palestine refugee families – almost half of the caseload – have been able to complete the minor repair works of their damaged homes with assistance provided through UNRWA and 149 families have completed the repairs of their severely damaged shelters. In addition, over 11,600 families have received their first rental subsidy payment for the period from September to December 2014. Since the start of the 2014 emergency shelter response, UNRWA has distributed a total of US$ 97.1 million (excluding Programme Support Costs) to Palestine refugee families.
• US$ 216 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$ 504 million.
• Due to the lack of funding, to date, 47,479 families have not received the first tranche for repair works of their shelter and 6,180 have not received the second tranche to continue the repair works. 441 refugee families still wait for their rental subsidy payment covering the period from September to December 2014 and 9,500 families are waiting for the first quarter of 2015 payment. 4,655 families have not received their US$ 500 reintegration grant to replace lost household goods. UNRWA has processed all these cases and they have received approval through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism; as soon as funding is secured the Agency can distribute the urgently needed financial support.
• Almost nine months after the announcement of a ceasefire, not a single totally destroyed home has been rebuilt in Gaza. As of 25 May, UNRWA engineers have confirmed 137,662 Palestine refugee houses as impacted during the July/August armed hostilities, 9,161 of them are considered totally demolished. In addition, 4,939 shelters have suffered severe, 3,679 major and 119,883 minor damages. The Agency has only received funding to reconstruct 200 of the 9,161 totally destroyed homes. The families have been identified and building permits and approved designs are being prepared.
• Earlier this month UNRWA participated in a reconstruction workshop organized by the Gaza Inter-Agency Shelter Cluster, involving all actors engaged in the Gaza reconstruction process – including UN-agencies, local and international non-government organizations and Palestinian government agencies. The main focus of the workshop was to identify steps to accelerate the reconstruction process. A summary of the recommendations will soon be published in a report.
• The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in UNRWA Collective Centres (CC) has significantly declined over the past weeks and stands at approximately 2,129 IDPs. During the reporting week, UNRWA closed the Qelaipo Preparatory Boys CC in northern Gaza, bringing the number of Agency-run CCs down to seven. The majority of the IDPs have moved out of UNRWA shelters as they received urgently needed support to be able to either find alternative temporary housing or conduct repair works of their shelters; some families who were eligible also received the US$ 500 reintegration grant. These families will now be able to rent a place during the period of transition and if they were categorized as eligible prior to the conflict and displacement they will resume the collection of regular UNRWA food assistance. This transitions the families out of schools to better housing options, enabling them to live with dignity and privacy and paves way for recovery – particularly important in light of the upcoming holy month of Ramadan.
• In an effort to explain the reconstruction process and continuing challenges faced by affected Palestine refugee families, UNRWA receives international delegations and media representatives. This week, UNRWA, with a delegation from the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), visited and interviewed two families whose homes were damaged in the 2014 hostilities and who were able to leave the Collective Centre and find temporary rental accommodations once receiving rental subsidy payments through UNRWA. It may not be “home”, but the families welcome the privacy and dignity the rented apartments provide after months in the Collective Centres.
• During the week, a delegation of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation also arrived in Gaza. The delegation visited an UNRWA school in Gaza city and was briefed on UNRWA education activities. Thanks to the Spanish National Committee, Gaza Field Office also received a television crew from El Intermedio, a television programme broadcast by the Spanish television station LaSexta. Accompanied by UNRWA representatives, they visited UNRWA programmes and different neighbourhoods across the Gaza Strip. They also interviewed a wide-range of Palestine refugees. El Intermedio occasionally partners with UN Agencies and non-profit organisations by airing reports or interviews about their activities in order to launch fund raising campaigns. This is the third time El Intermedio has partnered with UNRWA in Gaza; their first visit in March 2014 triggered approximately EUR 135,000 (US$ 148,200) for UNRWA and their second visit after the last conflict in September 2014 generated an additional EUR 86,000 (US$ 94,400).
Operational environment: In June 2015, the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza will be entering its ninth year. It has crippled the once dynamic, export led economy – causing soaring unemployment, rising rates of poverty and food insecurity, and forcing over 80 per cent of people into dependence on humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs. Reportedly, in recognition of the June anniversary, a variety of ships forming the third international Freedom Flotilla to end the blockade on Gaza and deliver humanitarian goods to the Strip have commenced their respective journeys from different ports in Europe and, according to news reports, plan to travel to Gaza.
Daily protests continued during the reporting week. Protestors demanded the payment of their salaries or monthly cash assistance or the release of their relatives and other Palestinians from Israeli jails.
On 20 May, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated in northwest Gaza city and injured two persons moderately; adjacent buildings suffered severe damage. On 21 May another IED exploded in northern Gaza and caused minor damage.
Non-traditional job opportunities for young refugee women
In a classroom in the UNRWA Gaza Vocational Training Centre in Gaza city, 20 young Palestine refugee women shift carton studio walls and spotlights, play with cameras and use software to adjust pictures on their computers. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
“My achievements in school were poor and I was not sure how to proceed; this vocational training in photography offers a real opportunity for me,” said Sabrin El Shibari, a 19-year old ‘over-aged student’ (those who have previously failed two or more years in school) and photography trainee in the Training Centre. “My family is very poor and now I am the only one with a real chance to get a job and provide income to support my family,” she added.
Photography is not a traditional occupation for women in Gaza, yet according to Jamil Hamadd, the Principal of the Gaza Training Centre, there is real market demand for female photographers in the Strip, for example at weddings. “People always get married,” he said, smiling whimsically. But more importantly, “we want to give girls and women a real prospect and ease their access to the local market through non-traditional vocational training opportunities while at the same time respecting local traditions.”
The Gaza Vocational Training Centre commenced courses in 2010 in order to enhance the professional skills and employment opportunities of young Palestine refugees. UNRWA currently offers places for a total of 1,745 trainees through its two vocational training centres in Gaza city and Khan Younis, southern Gaza. Approximately 80 per cent of all participants are from the Strips’ most vulnerable groups, including women and youth. Courses are offered in plumbing, painting, plastering, nursing and counselling, but also in photography and food processing technology. The vocational trainees usually enjoy six months of training in the centre before progressing to a second phase as an apprentice in a private business or UNRWA facilities.
“I believe that this is a real chance for the students. Here we try creating market-relevant employability,” commented photography trainer Bahia Abu-Sultan. “The girls are motivated. They want to move forward, they all want to be economically independent, open a studio together, work in teams,” she added proudly.
Yet despite the motivation of the students, the economic situation in Gaza is challenging and hopes can be crushed easily. The average refugee youth unemployment rate in 2014 stood at 70.1 per cent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS); and although refugee female participation rate increased from 8 to 20 per cent between 2006 and 2014 (also according to PCBS data), barriers are still high especially for female refugee youth, for whom the unemployment rate stands at 83.3 per cent. The main cause of this situation is the economic blockade imposed by Israel in 2007 which maintains severe restrictions on movement of people and goods. Consequently, an entire generation is in danger of having no memory of a period prior to the blockade – like Sabrin, who at 19 years has never once set foot outside of the Gaza Strip.
SUMMARY OF MAJOR INCIDENTS
During the reporting week, Israeli forces fired towards Palestinians near the fence with Israel or at Palestinian boats almost on a daily basis. On 19 and 25 May, the Egyptian navy fired towards Palestinian boats, forcing them towards the north. On 25 May, Israeli forces injured three Palestinians while opening fired at their boat in northern Gaza.
On 20 May, three Israeli tanks and three bulldozers entered the Gaza Strip east of Maghazi Camp and reportedly conducted a levelling and excavation operation.
On 20 May, militants fired one test rockets towards the sea; on 24 May militants fired two test rockets towards the sea.
US$ 216 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$ 504 million.
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.
• The Rafah Crossing remained closed from 19 to 25 May. It was partially open on 26 May to allow Palestinians stranded in Egypt to return to the Gaza Strip; exit from Gaza remained closed. Previously the crossing was last opened for two days on 9 and 10 March after a continuous closure of 45 days.
• The Erez crossing was open for National ID holders (humanitarian cases, medical cases, merchants and UN staff) and for international staff from 19 to 21 May and on 25 and 26 May. On 22 May, Erez crossing was open for pedestrians only. It was closed on 23 and 24 May due to Israeli public holidays.
• Kerem Shalom was open between 19 to 21 May and 24 to 26 May. It was closed on 22 and 23 May.