Refugee Assistance

 Refugee Assistance

Downhill into the future: Rafah, Gaza 2004
Leave your development indicators at home and look for de-development indicators because you are going to Gaza.
De-development in the Gaza Strip proceeds apace in the winter of 2004. The process was described by Sara Roy in her 1995 book: The Gaza Strip—The Political Economy of De-development, Institute for Palestine Studies.

During the 1990s, the strength of the economy could be assessed by counting the number of workers going into Israel each day and the price of donkeys at the Friday donkey market in the Shajiah quarter of Gaza town. If donkey prices went up, this meant that people didn’t have the money to buy cars so they resorted to donkeys.

Today the number of workers going into Israel is half that of 10 years ago and donkeys are everywhere. The economy has been further harmed with the leveling of citrus groves and olive trees as a “security measure” by the Israeli military. These were once were a major source of income for Gaza. The Israelis also control how far the fleet of small fishing boats can go out to sea and some days forbid them to go out at all, cutting off another source of income.

Sure, in Gaza town there are a few internet cafes, pizza parlours and new modern hotels. But the hotels are empty since getting into Gaza isn’t easy.

A trip there for internationals takes a lot of planning. The first step is getting permission from UN security or a valid invitation from a local organization to be in Gaza and then a five-day security check by the Israeli authorities. Once this is done, your name is put on a list at Erez Crossing point in the north of Gaza.

When you get to Erez, you present your passport and your details to be checked by computer just like at an international airport and the list of approved visitors to Gaza is checked to see if your name is really on it. If everything is in order, each vehicle is given a form that approves passage into Gaza. This is handed over to a soldier at a final roadblock. These days most people, including some NGO representatives, are refused permission to enter.

Getting out of Gaza is equally involved. At a gate across the road on the Gaza side, a soldier scans your documents then the computer check, the same as when arriving. There is the added “precaution” of an under vehicle search and the rub down with the plastic gloves of the vehicle’s interior looking for traces of undesirable chemicals and the wait for the testing of the gloves. Any luggage has to go through the x-ray machine and then is opened for inspection. When all this is done, you get a departure form to be presented to a soldier at a final checkpoint.

Trying to get to Rafah or almost any other place in the Strip is the next hurdle. The main north-south road may be closed for the day even for UN vehicles. The Gaza Strip, only 30 kms long and 5-8 kms wide is split in three with Israeli checkpoints along the way near Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag settlements. Sometimes the Strip is even divided into four.

Local cars with only one person cannot drive on the road past Kfar Darom. So young men and boys line up along the road offering to accompany you past the settlement for one shekel. It’s one way of income generation. After the short ride, they then line up on the other side of Kfar Darom and offer their services to vehicles going the other way.

Getting to Rafah
A 30-minute trip from Gaza town to Rafah can take up to two hours. A return trip that used to be made in a morning may take the whole day.
Nowhere is de-development more obvious than in Rafah, a district of 163,000, including 135,000 Palestinian refugees, on the border with Egypt.
Rafah has never been a tourist attraction but for a few years in the 1990s there was some development, new buildings and a better face to the city. In the winter rain, Rafah looks bleak and forbidding. The old Salahadin gate where one could cross to Egypt on foot has been blocked by mounds of earth, the houses closest to the border are gone leaving a bare strip of sand between the ruins of 3-4 storey buildings and a new 5-meter-high rusted steel wall running along the border replacing a see-through wire fence. Israeli military observation towers dot the border between Egypt and Gaza.

The destruction of buildings and the new wall is an Israeli effort to stop the digging of tunnels under the international border and prevent what Israel says is smuggling and a flow of arms from Egypt to Gaza.

Whatever the reasons for the devastation of Rafah, it has left thousands of innocent families without shelter and their meager possessions ground into the sand.

While humanitarian aid is urgently needed to alleviate the day-to-day suffering of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, it is only a stopgap. The real need is to search for solutions to the Palestinian refugee issue as a whole, for more than 6 million refugees living in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and further afield.

Under the “rocks”

“I was under the rocks,” says 4-year-old Manal. Her family’s home was demolished for the second time by Israeli incursions into Rafah refugee camp. The rest of her family escaped but they couldn’t find Manal. She was buried under the debris of the house. They found her, hearing her calls of distress.

On May 2, 2001, Israeli bulldozers destroyed 25 houses in an area of Rafah, Gaza called Brazil camp which is built on the site where Brazilian soldiers were stationed as part of the UN Emergency Force after the 1967 War. One of the houses belonged to Manal’s family. With cash aid from UNRWA, the family rented a small house in Shaboura quarter of Rafah as a temporary home. But in September 2002, the bulldozers came again. Her family lost its home and several family members were injured.

Now they are living in the Tel el Sultan area of Rafah where UNRWA has built a new housing complex for 97 families. Manal and her family are among the almost 10,000 Palestinian refugees in Rafah who had been made homeless since September 2000. (See photo of Manal and her sisters)

UNRWA has also built new housing projects in Khan Younis and Deir el Balah for hundreds of families. Additional houses are being built, rebuilt or repaired in Khan Younis, Rafah, Bureij, Jabalia, Beit Hanoun for the almost 20,000 refugees whose homes have been demolished or badly damaged.

Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza have been attacked repeatedly by Israeli military forces. Damage to refugee shelters by indiscriminate as well as targeted military attacks is especially severe in the densely built-up refugee camps where makeshift constructions are less resistant to attacks by heavy ammunition and weaponry. And even well built structures as shown in the accompanying photos have been heavily damaged or destroyed. (See al-Majdal issue No. 20 of December 2003 for details on the destruction and rebuilding of Jenin Camp, West Bank.)

Destruction has not been limited to official refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Refugees living outside camps and some 2,000 non-refugees have had their homes demolished or heavily damaged.

Half rely on food aid

In addition to rehousing refugees, UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, is supplying food on a bi-monthly basis to 124,000 families in the Gaza Strip, 18,000 of them in the Rafah area.

Food parcels usually contain 50 kg of flour, five kg of rice, five of sugar, two liters of cooking oil, one kg of powdered milk and 5 kg of lentils. More than half of the population of the Gaza Strip is totally dependent on food aid.

The 4,500 refugees who returned to the Gaza Strip from Canada Camp in Egypt (See al-Majdal issue No. 19, September 2003, ‘Don’t confuse relocation with return—18 years to move two kilometers’) have not escaped. Their homes in the Tel el Sultan area of Rafah, were built with funds from Canada and Kuwait. Several young men have been killed and a few houses damaged. They also suffer from restrictions on movement in the Gaza Strip and the economic crisis with up to 60 per cent of the whole Gaza population having no regular work.

As part of its emergency relief activities in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA has been providing temporary jobs for unemployed breadwinners, indirectly supporting 160,000 persons in the Gaza Strip. While the homeless await new shelters, UNRWA has, along with other agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, provided tents, blankets, kitchen kits, medicines and drinking water. UNRWA also provides cash assistance to help them temporarily rent new quarters if they cannot move in with relatives or neighbors.

Muhammad Najjar and his wife who moved back to Gaza from Egypt in 2001 remain virtual prisoners in Tel el Sultan. Their daughters and grandchildren live in other parts of the Gaza Strip but he and his wife can’t go to visit them or they him because of Israeli roadblocks and road closures.

The Najjars also have a son who had been going to Bir Zeit University in the West Bank but even when he was there, the family could only get together every six months because of travel restrictions for a young man going between the West Bank and Gaza. Now Hassan is studying engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. At least, says Mr. Najjar, his son is safe and can start building a future for himself. 

Reconstruction of housing units by UNRWA—Gaza Strip (Feb. 2004)

 
Completed
Under Construction
Tendered
Design stage
 Total
Tel el Sultan
97
 
 
 
97
Rafah
 
103
122
100
325
D/Balah
19
 
 
 
19
Middle Camps
26
 
 
36
62
Jabalia/B/Hanoun
16
 
 
36
52
K/Younis
125
86
 
116
327
Total
283
189
122
288
882

Source: UNRWA
 
 
Closures, curfews and armed attacks have affected all sectors and services in the Gaza Strip.

Health
More than 1,200 refugees in the Gaza Strip have sustained permanent disabilities since the beginning of the current intifada.
Thousands of children at UNRWA schools have needed counseling because of psychological stress. In the month of March 2003 alone, 1,300 students from West Bank and Gaza received psychological counseling because of aggressive behavior, hypertension, communication difficulties and a wide range of other symptoms including anxiety attacks, stuttering and bedwetting. The cost of the program in Gaza is $1.5 million for 2004.

Increasing rates of poverty and malnutrition, ongoing damage to the environmental health infrastructure and the increase in demand on health services for patients requiring emergency care and long-term follow-up as a result of current violence have put a strain on all health services. To meet the demand, 138 additional medical staff have been hired under UNRWA’s emergency Employment Generation Program in Gaza. This program has also been used to hire additional staff for non-UNRWA health facilities.

Education
The continuing emergency has resulted in severe disruption to the education of tens of thousands of children. Some 24,000 teaching days have been lost at UNRWA schools in Gaza since 2002 and as a result there has been a marked deterioration in test results showing an erosion of students’ skills making them ill prepared to continue their education.

UNRWA is providing remedial education to 39,000 pupils from grades four to nine and has embarked on a program of developing distance learning materials so children can continue their studies at home. The Agency is also providing short-term courses for 142 new trainees through its Gaza Vocational Training Centre to provide young refugees with marketable skills.
More than 1,200 refugees in the Gaza Strip have sustained permanent disabilities since the beginning of the current intifada.

Thousands of children at UNRWA schools have needed counseling because of psychological stress. In the month of March 2003 alone, 1,300 students from West Bank and Gaza received psychological counseling because of aggressive behavior, hypertension, communication difficulties and a wide range of other symptoms including anxiety attacks, stuttering and bedwetting. The cost of the program in Gaza is $1.5 million for 2004.

Increasing rates of poverty and malnutrition, ongoing damage to the environmental health infrastructure and the increase in demand on health services for patients requiring emergency care and long-term follow-up as a result of current violence have put a strain on all health services. To meet the demand, 138 additional medical staff have been hired under UNRWA’s emergency Employment Generation Program in Gaza. This program has also been used to hire additional staff for non-UNRWA health facilities.

2004 UNRWA emergency funding requirements, US$ millions

 
Gaza Strip
West Bank
Food security
36.9
18.6
Emergency employment
41.2
20.7
Cash/inkind assistance
12.8
13.8
Health
1.4
3.9
Psychosocial
1.7
1.9
Education
1.3
0.8
Shelter
30.5
2.3
Total
125.5
62.0

Source: UNRWA
 
 
Humanitarian Obligations, Access Denied

ICRC Ends Large-scale Relief Distribution

At the 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced the end of large-scale relief distribution to Palestinians in West Bank towns and villages. Since June 2002, the ICRC had provided urgently needed aid to some 300,000 Palestinians in the West Bank.

ICRC emphasized that “Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is the primary responsibility of Israel, the occupying power, to ensure that the population of occupied territories has sufficient access to food, water, health services and education. Any security measures taken by Israel to defend its citizens against attacks should not have a disproportionate impact on Palestinian civilians living in the occupied territories.”

The ICRC will continue existing regular programs including helping improve access to drinking water and provision of relief aid to Palestinian families whose homes have been destroyed. The Red Cross will also intensify efforts to closely monitor the economic situation of the Palestinian population in the 1967 occupied territories.

UNRWA Suspends Emergency Food Aid in Gaza

At the end of March 2004 the UN Special Coordinator's Office (UNSCO) said new Israeli-imposed restrictions on staff movements may force humanitarian agencies to cut back on assisting Gaza's civilian population. Nearly all humanitarian aid vehicles from the UN and other agencies were banned from crossing at the Erez checkpoint in March.

Several days after the UNSCO statement, UNRWA took the decision to stop distributing emergency food aid to some 600,000 refugees in the Gaza Strip, or approximately half of the refugees receiving UNRWA food aid in the occupied territories due to Israeli restrictions. Stocks of rice, flour, cooking oil and other essential foodstuffs have been fully depleted. Under normal circumstances, UNRWA delivers some 250 tons of food aid per day in Gaza alone as part of a wider program of emergency assistance to refugees, initiated in 2000.

"The suspension of UNRWA's emergency food aid in the Gaza Strip will further distress communities already struggling to cope with unrelieved economic hardship and malnutrition,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen. “If the new restrictions in Gaza continue, I fear we could see real hunger emerge for the first time in two generations. Israel's legitimate, and serious, security concerns will not be served by hindering the emergency relief work of the United Nations. I appeal to the authorities to lift these restrictions and enable us to resume our food distributions in Gaza."


Sources: UNRWA, ICRC. 

 

 

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