Allow me to introduce you to Baby Salma from Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. She is dead. She died of hypothermia in January this year at just forty days old. Her body was drenched in freezing rainwater during the winter storm knows as Huda. Baby Salma was Huda’s youngest victim.
I met Mirvat, Salma’s mother in Beit Hanoun along with sixteen members of her extended family living in what can only be described as an animal pen. Mirvat shares
The night we took Salma to the hospital her flesh was frozen like ice cream. It had been raining all day and we were drenched. Salma’s blankets were completely wet. I found her shaking. Not long after we took her to hospital, the doctor called. “Salma is dead,” he said. My beautiful little girl weighed 3.5 kilos. She would be alive today if we had not been bombed out of our house during the war.
During the conflict last summer, Mirvat, her husband and five children were living with forty members of their extended family in a complex of five small houses just one kilometer from the fence between Gaza and Israel. Her father-in-law, Jibril, knew that as the violence intensified, their lives were endangered.
“The smell of death was in the air. The children were traumatized and could not sleep,” Jibril told me. “After a week, the bombs were falling everywhere. So we fled to my brother’s house. That became too dangerous so we went to a hospital, but that was hit.”
Jibril and his family ended up in an UNWRA school that was being used as a shelter. At the height of the war there were 300,000 people in approximately ninety UNRWA schools, six times more than during the 2008/9 fighting. The UNRWA shelters were overcrowded and though the UNRWA team in Gaza did heroic work – eleven died during the 51-day conflict – the conditions in the schools were bad. Jibril and his family left and ended up in the shack where I met them. They had little choice. Their homes had been completely destroyed.
In response to the widespread destruction in Gaza and after the Cairo reconstruction conference in October last year, UNRWA created a reconstruction program. Our objective was to repair or reconstruct the 138,000 refugee homes that we estimate were damaged or destroyed. We would also pay rent to families whose houses were uninhabitable, while the rebuilding was done. The total program cost was 720 million USD. But only 216 million USD has been pledged, leaving a shortfall of 504 million USD. Unsurprisingly, to date far less than half of the reconstruction program has been completed.
This work was to be carried out under the so-called “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism”, a tripartite body comprised of the UN, the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority. The mechanism has partially functioned – albeit slowly and some 60,000 refugee homes needing minor repairs have been repaired.
However, to date not one single totally destroyed refugee home has been rebuilt. This is partly due to the lack of funds and partly because the residential stream of the mechanism – a simplified process for reconstructing houses -- is yet to be finalized. Negotiations to deal with this are reportedly ongoing.
They need a positive conclusion soon as today 120,000 people in Gaza are homeless – a figure that should shame the international system. It certainly hurts those of us who have advocated tirelessly for rapid steps to help the beleaguered people of Gaza move on in dignity.
So what needs to be done? The blockade needs to be lifted as part of steps to address the underlying causes of the conflict. The rockets fired from Gaza, which UNRWA’s Commissioner General condemned, not from the safety of his office in Jerusalem, but from inside Gaza as the conflict raged – must stop. There must be intra-Palestinian cooperation. All donors must live up to the pledges they made in Cairo.
Gaza must be allowed to export and recover from its current economic free fall. The latest World Bank report put Gazan unemployment at forty-three percent, perhaps the highest in the world. Youth unemployment in Gaza is a staggering sixty-one per cent, the highest in the region, according to the Bank. Palestine refugees want nothing more than to be freed from the indignities of aid dependency and their continued status as refugees.
At the heart of the increasingly complex problems they face in Gaza where two-thirds of the population are refugees, is their unresolved political plight. A just and durable solution is what ultimately will offer them the protection from violence and the promise of dignified lives that they rightly crave.
Here the people of Gaza are no different from other Palestine refugees across the region. Allow me to conclude, as I began by introducing you to another Palestinian, Faris, a twenty-year old Palestine refugee from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. His experiences speak to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and beyond.
Faris fled Yarmouk, in December 2012 when the camp came under intense bombardment. Faris explained to me,
There were two or three mortars landing every few minutes. We were terrified. No one slept. Many were killed and injured around me. Thousands fled the camp. I and my brother went with them…Leaving Yarmouk broke me. It left a scar on my soul. It was the Nakba all over again. We fled to Egypt and paid over ten thousand dollars to a human smuggler to take us by boat to Europe. It was almost all of our family savings. They put us on a small boat with about four hundred people. After three days the engine stopped. We were drifting dangerously on the high seas. There was panic. I thought we would die. But eventually we were picked up by a larger boat carrying 700 people…We slept where we sat. We ate just eight spoons of rice each day.
The Italian coast guard picked up and detained Faris and others off the coast of Italy. After their release they headed for the Austrian border. They were arrested but eventually made it across Austria into Germany where they have been granted asylum. Faris is now studying languages.
His experiences exemplify the growing fragility of Palestine refugees, multiply displaced, beset by increasingly complex vulnerabilities, denied rights and dignity, and facing terrifying choices as they struggle to survive.
“After the horrors I have endured,” says Faris, “I often ask myself, is there anywhere safe in this world for Palestinians? I don’t know,” he admits. “But I dream of having my own state to call home where I and my family can live in peace, prosperity and dignity.”