18 - 25 August/Issue 107
SPECIAL FEATURE: 26 August, the first anniversary of the ceasefire after 50 days of conflict
26 August marks one year since an open ended ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was declared, following 50 days of conflict. Over the past twelve months, the situation has continued to take its toll on Palestine refugees in Gaza. The civilian population bore the brunt of the hostilities with unprecedented numbers of civilian fatalities, injuries and displacement. The scale of destruction of homes and other civilian infrastructure is now still alarmingly visible. UNRWA has consistently called for accountability for violations of international law based on credible investigation that brings those responsible to justice and seeks remedies for those affected. Reconstruction is only just beginning, repair works have been slowed by lack of funding, the blockade and protracted economic and environmental issues remain or have worsened. Gaza now records one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. This lack of progress and debilitating situation has had a significant and devastating impact on families. Without fast and significant change, the long term sustainability of Gaza being a liveable place by 2020 is increasingly unlikely, and the hope and strength of its people has never been more tested. Despite the immense daily challenges, and through the dedication of its staff, UNRWA’s operations continue to sustain 1.3 million refugees surviving a broken economy, political divide and devastated infrastructure. The Agency mounted an extraordinary response and highlighted its unique position as the largest UN organization in the Gaza Strip and the only UN Agency that undertakes direct implementation. UNRWA remains focused on linking its operational response to advocating for economic stability, a lifting of the blockade and real political will to change the current status quo. It recognizes that rebuilding in isolation of these concerns is in vein and is far less than all women, men and children in the Gaza Strip deserve. Highlights can be found here.
• Thanks to an extraordinary fund raising effort to secure US $81.06 million of the US $101 million General Fund deficit faced by UNRWA, the Agency declared the opening of the school year and the education programme is now investing tremendous efforts to commence the 2015/2016 school year, as announced. In Gaza, nearly 250,800 students were scheduled to return to 257 UNRWA schools during the reporting week. The return to school was delayed by one day, due to industrial action organized by the Local Staff Union, which saw thousands of UNRWA teachers and other staff strike on Monday 24 August in protest of the UNRWA Commissioner-General's recent decision introducing the possibility of placing staff on exceptional leave without pay for up to one year, and a possible increase in the number of students per class. The Commissioner General wrote to all staff “freezing” the “Exceptional Leave” policy. In addition, the Agency has made no decision on increasing the class size ceiling. On Tuesday, Parents’ Councils protested against the possible increase in class sizes by preventing students entering class rooms. The Education Department nevertheless remains dedicated to implementing back to school activities as soon as possible. Stationery, including Arabic and English exercise books, as well as pens and pencils will be distributed to commence the year. In total, 8,086 teachers in all five areas of Gaza facilitate the education of Palestine refugee students, led by 257 School Principals and 257 Deputy School Principals. Students and teachers had started their three-month summer break in late May; however, to provide further support during the break, for two weeks UNRWA ran the Summer Learning Programme in 112 learning centres for students who previously failed the exams, as well as the English Summer Learning Programme for talented students to improve their English oral skills. As the Gaza population continues to cope with the consequences of the 2014 summer conflict and the blockade, following the month of Ramadan the Agency also held the Summer Fun Weeks to provide Palestine refugee children with an opportunity to play and have fun, as well to give some of them continuous support for their ongoing psycho-social needs.
• UNRWA’s fund raising efforts and decision to open the school year on time resulted in a huge sigh of relief for many inside and outside the Agency. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said he was greatly relieved that UNRWA was able to begin the school year on time for nearly half a million Palestinian children across the Middle East. “For them, education is a passport to dignity, offering an escape from the poverty trap to a life of prosperity and security. We must stand by them and the agency that serves them,” UNSG associate spokesperson Vanina Maestracci told reporters. In his briefing to the Security-Council on 19 August, the United Nations Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, expressed his relief about the announcement that UNRWA had opened its schools on time, especially in light of a “palpable risk” of escalation in Israel and Palestine, as he said. In the context of the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire that ended last summer’s devastating conflict and the ongoing misery in Gaza, the Under-Secretary called the collective response of the international community “inadequate to date.” “Over 20 years of failed negotiations have bred mistrust and painful withering of hope” amongst Palestinians, he stated.
• As an early recovery initiative following the 2014 summer hostilities, UNRWA launched a new Shelter Cash for Work (SCfW) project. The SCfW initiative is part of the Agency’s efforts to secure funds for transitional shelter cash assistance (TSCA) of refugee families in Gaza, whose homes have been severely damaged or totally destroyed during the conflict. The SCfW initiative offsets temporary accommodation costs through a short term employment opportunity in the unskilled category for refugee families whose shelters were severely affected during the hostilities. All registered Palestine refugee families whose shelters were identified by UNRWA as uninhabitable (severely or totally destroyed) are eligible to apply for a three-month employment placement (up to two opportunities per family) in any of the UNRWA approved hosting institutions. Refugee families participating in this SCfW opportunity acknowledge that it is in lieu of TSCA. The new project will be implemented from early September.
• Four 16-18-year old refugee students from the UNRWA Gaza Training Centre (GTC) have successfully developed three samples of solar heating units. These units should soon provide affordable, safe and environmentally friendly heating solutions for Palestinian families still living in makeshift homes and caravans due to the destruction of their homes during last summer’s conflict. The design of the units had been requested by two international organizations Action Contre la Faim (ACF, Action Against Hunger) and Mercy Corps, to be used in small mobile latrines for internally displaced persons in Gaza. The GTC team developed the samples based on a model of a solar oven they had manufactured previously. ACF and Mercy Corps bought two of the units to be reproduced in the local market and installed in mobile latrines for displaced persons in Gaza city and in Khan Younis, southern Gaza. According to the most recent damage assessment of the summer 2014 conflict, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that some 12,576 housing units were totally destroyed in Gaza and 6,455 were severely damaged. This translates into 19,000 uninhabitable houses, resulting in an estimated 100,000 internally displaced persons who are currently still accommodated either with host families, in rented apartments, in their heavily damaged homes or next to it in makeshift shelters, tents and caravans.
UNRWA’s regular shelter update is captured in the special feature section, under emergency shelter & repairs & reconstruction.
Operational environment: In Gaza, mistrust and frustration continue to be expressed through protests and sit-ins. Where demonstrations targeted at UNRWA over recent weeks have focused on demands to open school on time, they took a different turn during the reporting week. After announcing last week that UNRWA schools across the Middle East would open on time, on 24 August, the day of the planned school opening, the UNRWA Gaza Local Staff Union called for a teachers’ strike in protest of the possible increase of class size and the possibility of placing staff on unpaid exceptional leave, according to media reports. One day before the strike UNRWA froze the new staff rule on exceptional leave which was intended to provide the Agency with an alternative to severing contracts when funds are not available to pay salaries.
Approximately 7,000 UNRWA teacher staff and supporters attended the protest in the UNRWA Gaza Field Office. On 25 August, parents of UNRWA students held sit-ins at UNRWA schools to protest against the increasing numbers of students in classrooms.
During the reporting week, demonstrations were also held across Gaza in solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons.
The Israeli not-for-profit organization Gisha that aims at protecting the freedom of movement of Palestinians has released a report titled “Where’s the housing boom?”, in which they criticise the Israeli “dual use” policy regarding the import of construction material into Gaza, as well as the Residential Stream of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism that enables the reconstruction of totally destroyed homes in the Strip. The on-going homelessness crisis in Gaza and other constant reminders of last summer’s conflict for both Palestinians and Israelis is also portrayed in a recently published interactive“Walking in War’s Path” series by the New York Times.
Husam Al Ghoula, standing in front of the house that he is currently reconstructing,
August 2015. Photo credit: ©UNRWA Gaza 2015. Photo by Tamer Hamam.
“My previous house was very humble; yet although our financial situation was difficult, we were very happy living in that house because it was our own,” commented the father of 10.
Sitting in front of his partially reconstructed house in Sha’af area in Gaza city, Husam recalls the day when he was forced to leave the house with his large family: “We stayed home, we did not want to leave the house, we thought that it is a matter of days and things will get calm again.”
Yet when the shelling intensified in his neighbourhood over the next week he and his family decided to flee.
“We spent only one day in an UNRWA Collective Centre and then we joined my relatives in Tal Al Hawa area, in Gaza city, where we stayed for the remainder of the war. The whole time we hoped to be able to return to our home soon,” he added.
Yet the family home was completely destroyed during the conflict. In its aftermath, Husam’s family received transitional rental subsidy payments from UNRWA to be able to rent a house for a period of almost one year. When the governments of Israel and Palestine reached an agreement on a Residential Stream of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism to allow for the construction of totally demolished homes, the family felt relieved.
“We were so happy when our name was included in the lists of those who were approved to receive reconstruction materials; we were full of hopes and dreams to reconstruct our house and to return to our normal life, our friends and neighbours,” he explained.
Husam’s family has received the first instalment from UNRWA to start the reconstruction, yet so far he was unable to complete the works and move back to his home.
“I am sad that we still could not complete the house; I know it takes time and I am sure UNRWA will provide me with the financial assistance I deserve to reconstruct it, but I just hope so much that I can complete it soon to settle down with my family again,” he said, seeming both sad and at the same time hopeful as he looked at his incomplete family home.
SUMMARY OF MAJOR INCIDENTS
Israeli forces fired towards Palestinians near the security fence or towards Palestinian boats on an almost daily basis.
On 17 August six Israeli bulldozers entered approximately 100 metres into Gaza areas and IDF troops conducted a clearing and excavation operation. On 20 August four bulldozers entered into northern Gaza areas and conducted a clearing and excavation operation. On 25 August again six bulldozers entered approximately 200 metres into Gaza areas and IDF troops conducted a clearing and excavation operation.
On 18, 19 and 21 August, militants fired one test rocket towards the sea.
On 20 August a six-year old boy who had sustained wounds due to the detonation of an unexploded ordinance (UXO) during the previous week passed away.
Thanks to generous donors, UNRWA has overcome its immediate and most serious financial crisis and was able to partially bridge the US$ 101 million deficit in its General Fund; to date, approximately US$ 81.06 million has been confirmed by donors.
In response to the unprecedented needs faced by the Palestine refugees, and the continuous financial shortages and unstable financial footing of the Agency, UNRWA is currently exploring options for additional funding, but is also implementing a series of austerity measures aimed at decreasing costs where possible while preserving essential services to refugees.
US$ 227 million has been pledged in support of UNRWA’s emergency shelter programme, for which an estimated US$ 720 million is required. This leaves a current shortfall of US$ 493 million.
As presented in UNRWA’s oPt Emergency Appeal, the Agency is seeking US$ 366.6 million for its 2015 emergency operations in Gaza, including US$ 127 million for emergency shelter, repair and collective centre management, US$ 105.6 million for emergency food assistance, and US$ 68.6 million for emergency cash-for-work. More information can be found here.
• The Rafah Crossing was open from 18 to 20 August. It remained closed from 21 to 23 August.
• The Erez crossing was open for National ID holders (humanitarian cases, medical cases, merchants and UN staff) and for international staff from 18 to 20 August and from 23 to 25 August. On 21 August, Erez crossing was open for pedestrians only. It was closed on 22 August
• Kerem Shalom was open from 18 to 20 and 23 to 25 August. It was closed on 21 and 22 August.
Former Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, Robert Turner
The response and role of UNRWA as a stabilizing factor during the 2014 conflict and in everyday Gaza cannot be underestimated. It remains an Agency that has long provided services refugees can count on and indeed rely on. Pending a lasting and comprehensive political solution, Palestine refugees in Gaza will continue looking to UNRWA, rather than the government, for their basic services. UNRWA also continues to be the only stable institution in Gaza over the past decades as power has shifted from Egypt to Israel to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the Hamas de facto government to the Government of National Consensus. This serves to underscore the importance of the Agency’s role in Gaza society and as a force of stabilization, a role which is often at risk with inconsistent funding streams for human development and humanitarian relief activities.
Despite the obstacles, hope does still exist within and for Gaza. It is up to the international community, the Palestinian authorities, and governments in Israel and Egypt, to help Palestine refugees keep that hope alive, in the face of the many triumphs and challenges that remain.
After learning that UNRWA had opened its schools to accommodate those who fled their home dur to the ongoing conflict, my family and I left and sought refuge. By opening its schools to us and providing us with basic services, UNRWA gave us some sense of security, and for this we are eternally grateful.
Felestin Al Zaanin, July 2014
During the 50 days of hostilities, nobody and nothing was safe in the Gaza Strip. With Gaza effectively sealed off by land, sea and air, the option of fleeing the coastal enclave was simply nonexistent. The ground offensive in the Gaza Strip with air, artillery and naval support, left people with simply nowhere to go for refuge, other than UNRWA schools operating as emergency shelters. Throughout the armed conflict, UNRWA provided humanitarian assistance (including non-food-items, food, water, psycho-social support) to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 90 of 156 UNRWA school buildings, with the remaining school buildings either unsafe or damaged. On 23 August, a record-high of 292,959 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were counted in 85 UNRWA school buildings. After the ceasefire on 26 August as the majority of IDPs left to occupy their original damaged and undamaged properties, the Agency consolidated the remaining 74 shelters into 18 for the 60,000 IDPs who remained. In parallel, UNRWA began providing conditional cash assistance to offset transitional shelter costs (for completely and severely demolished properties) repair damaged properties and provide reintegration packages. This enabled IDPs to transition back to the local community with an increased sense of dignity, normalcy and privacy. Collective Centres (CCs) continued operations until 17 June, 2015, when UNRWA, in partnership with the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) and Qatar were able to provide payments to all families and allow them to transition out of the CCs. As of 25 August 2015, 12,528 families have received a rental subsidy payment to cover the period from September to December 2014 and 8,828 families have received a rental subsidy payment to cover the period from January to August 2015.
When we lost our house, it was like we lost our dreams, our existence and our value as human beings. It will take years to get rid of the bitterness inside me of what happened to my family and my children. I feel that I am not the same person anymore.
Sam Mahmoud Sa’ad, April 2014
The scale of human loss, destruction, devastation and displacement caused by this third conflict within seven years was catastrophic, unprecedented and unparalleled in Gaza, since at least the start of the Israeli occupation in 1967. The human, social and economic costs of the hostilities sit against a backdrop of a society already torn by wide-spread poverty, frustration and anger, heightening vulnerability and political instability within the occupied Palestinian territory. While final conclusion of the shelter assessment process is pending thorough review of refugee family cases who consider themselves eligible, UNRWA confirmed 139,817 refugee dwellings as impacted during the summer 2014 hostilities. This is more than three times as many as initially estimated based on satellite imagery and preliminary field work conducted immediately after the conflict. Of the total caseload, 9,117 Palestine refugee houses are assessed as totally demolished and 5,000 have suffered severe damages, while 3,700 have suffered major damages and 122,000 sustained minor damages. The lack of progress in the shelter programme is predominately due to the unavailability of construction material in the local market because of the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the lack of financial resources available to UNRWA for repair and rental subsidies. Moreover, an agreement between Israel and Palestine was only reached in the beginning of July on a workable mechanism to reconstruct completely destroyed homes under the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). Since the start of the 2014 emergency shelter response, the Agency has distributed over US$ 124.9 million (excluding Programme Support Costs) to Palestine refugee families whose homes were damaged or demolished during the 2014 summer conflict. To date, UNRWA has completed the payments to over 66,200 Palestine refugee families – almost half of the caseload – for minor repair works and to 428 families to repair their severely damaged shelters. Payments for 12,025 families to continue repair or reconstruct their shelters are ongoing. As of 25 August 2015, 78,632 families have received payments to undertake repair works and 69 families have received payments to start the reconstruction of their totally demolished homes. UNRWA also continues its regular housing and camp improvement projects led by the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Department.
LIFE SAVING CORE SERVICES
I was determined to save my people; nothing would deter me from my goal. It was very hard to leave my children during such terrible times, but it was my duty and responsibility and I would never shy from fulfilling it.
Dr. Hend Harb, UNRWA Senior Medical Officer, November 2014
There is no other UN Agency in the world that is as operational and as relied upon as UNRWA. That was particularly visible during the 2014 summer hostilities when dedicated staff continued delivery of core services and undertook the massive humanitarian response, effectively supporting the whole population of Gaza.
Throughout the emergency, UNRWA continued the operation of health centres, food distribution and WASH (Water, Sanitation, Health) services in Gaza’s eight refugee camps. The Agency was effectively supporting the entire population of the Gaza Strip through various life-saving interventions, including food aid, shelter and health. The regular in-kind food commodities to over 868,000 people, as well as an exceptional food distribution – in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Ministry of Social Affairs – of flour and rice to all families not receiving food assistance from UNRWA or the World Food Programme’s regular food programmes or the in-kind food commodities provided to families in shelters. During the 50 days of conflict alone UNRWA processed 4,615 Job Creation Programme (JCP) contracts for Palestinians related to the emergency response. This not only boosted UNRWA’s response capacity, but also provided much needed income to families at a time when it was most needed. Over the course of nine months after the conflict until the closure of the Collective Centres (CCs) in June 2015, UNRWA provided 4,763,682 food rations, 282,904 hot meals and 25,216,722 litres of portable water to refugees in its CCs. In the first quarter of 2015 UNRWA expanded its food assistance to almost 876,500 persons – or 68 per cent of the total refugee population. The Agency has now reformed its Poverty Assessment System (PAS), introducing a method that improves efficiency and accuracy in data collection. In addition, during the emergency UNRWA health services were extended to all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. On average, some 70 per cent of UNRWA health staff continued reporting to work, including at the height of the hostilities. Throughout 2014, the 21 UNRWA health centres provided 4,234,635 medical consultations, excluding non-refugees who were given access to UNRWA primary health-care services as a result of the July to August hostilities. These consultations also included ante- and post-natal care. An additional 10,758 students underwent comprehensive medical examinations. Those students in need of medical assistance or in need of visual or hearing aids were reimbursed by the Agency. As a result of the conflict, the need and demand for psycho-social support increased considerably; 92 counsellors from the UNRWA Community Mental Health Programme were assigned to emergency shelters, and additional staff were temporarily brought in to provide necessary counselling. Protection concerns, including Gender-Based Violence, were identified and followed-up by the Operation Support Office and Protection Focal Points appointed to the Collective Centres. Overall, UNRWA provided individual counselling to 18,292 new persons in 2014, of whom 8,868 were female; of the total number of individual counselling provided, 10,672 were in the six last months of the year. Finally, throughout and after the conflict UNRWA’s microfinance programme continued to help Gazans access credit and loans that enable them to develop or expand businesses, build household assets or cover their basic consumption, education and healthcare needs.
I love being at school and to be out of the sadness at home, which reminds me of the loss of my 11-year-old brother Asad. During the war, we evacuated our home and moved in with relatives. He took his doves with him and when he climbed to the roof to water them, he was killed by shrapnel due to shelling of a neighbouring house.
Sara, September 2014
The Agency was able to begin the school year on 14 September 2014, just three weeks after term was due to begin. This was a massive achievement and was aimed at not only re-starting children’s learning, but also creating a sense of routine and stability to aid in children’s recovery. To mitigate the effects of the conflict on children’s welfare and education, after the summer 2014 conflict the UNRWA Education Programme undertook a phased approach to supporting children’s transition back into formal education activities. Counsellors at UNRWA Relief and Social Services (RSS) offices were also temporarily reassigned to schools to better meet the need among students adjusting to the school year after the hostilities. In addition, UNRWA maintains a network of 250 counsellors from its Community Mental Help Programme to continuously address the students’ psycho-social needs. The number of students provided with individual counselling at schools was 14,499 – with 42 per cent of these being girls. The majority of cases were reported after the summer. The use of a large number of UNRWA school buildings for hosting Internally Displaced Persons during the 2014/2015 school year resulted in additional schools operating in double and triple shifts, teachers and students having to cope with an overcrowded environment. With the closure of Collective Centres, the UNRWA Department of Education increased its focus on the maintenance of school buildings, including improving access to water, continuous electricity supply and rehabilitating damaged premises. After a 3-months summer break beginning in late May, on 24 August, nearly 250,800 students were scheduled to begin the new school year 257 UNRWA schools. Meanwhile the Agency continues its efforts to cope with overcrowding in schools by building new school buildings.