WRMEA, May, 2015, pp. 16-17, 74
What Looms Ahead for the Forgotten Heroes of Gaza?
By Delinda C. Hanley
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) USA invited representatives from other Washington, DC-based non-profit organizations working in the Middle East to a March 19 roundtable discussion with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. He provided a sobering update on the unmet critical needs of Palestinian refugees in Gaza six months after the end of Israel’s 2014 assault on the besieged enclave. Krähenbühl described the obstacles to reconstruction, the slow pace of donor contributions, and what this portends for the near future in Gaza.
Geneva-born Krähenbühl is accustomed to seeing the devastating consequences of armed conflicts. Before coming to UNRWA in April 2014, he worked for 12 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), directing its response to fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria and other war-torn hot spots. Krähenbühl earned a reputation for breaking with ICRC’s traditionally discreet diplomacy, and speaking publicly about wars’ heavy toll on civilians.
Krähenbühl noted that when UNRWA was formed in 1949, it was tasked with aiding more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced the previous year. Today UNRWA provides assistance—including education, health care, camp infrastructure and improvement, and protection—to more than five million refugees: almost a quasi-state, with the population of Norway or Singapore. In Gaza alone, UNRWA is responsible for 1.26 million refugees, running 8 refugee camps, educating 240,000 students and operating 21 health centers, funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. member states.
Krähenbühl was on his way to Gaza to re-open Khuza’a Elementary Co-ed A&B school in eastern Khan Younis, one of 83 schools damaged during last summer’s bombardment. Thanks to international donors, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai—who contributed her entire World’s Children’s Prize award of $50,000—students finally were able to return to their repaired classrooms in mid-March.
Krähenbühl explained that it was impossible to adequately describe what happened last summer in Gaza, the physical destruction and destroyed neighborhoods. No matter how good the photographer, he said, no picture can capture the personal experiences of war. How do you express the trauma of someone whose family lives next door to an apartment bombed in Israel’s seven-week attack on Gaza—the man who told him he’d spent every day “wondering if the next bomb is for me”?
Sadly, we communicate in numbers. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2,200 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 490 children and 253 women. Another 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, including 3,000 children. Horrifying as they are, these numbers do not count the human cost of war. “We cannot accept anonymity in death and injury,” Krähenbühl emphasized. “We’re talking about families like our own with the same expectations of life. Palestinians are not statistics. How do we convey what happened in Gaza and is still going on in Syria?”
This is not a natural disaster, Krähenbühl added, and it occurred after eight years of a blockade imposed by Israel, which has resulted in an average unemployment rate of 44.1 percent for refugees in Gaza in 2014.
Turning briefly to Syria, Krähenbühl said that of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees living there, 80,000 to 100,00 left the country and more than 50 percent are displaced within Syria. UNRWA recently resumed aid distribution in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. “To see people queuing up for food hurts very much,” Krähenbühl said. Pregnant women fainting, hungry children. These are people who were forced from their villages in Palestine in 1948. Now they’ve had to flee from their apartments and abandon the businesses they built up over the years.
Palestinians have been waiting for a lasting resolution for more than 60 years. “This is a community deeply traumatized, Krähenbühl said. “The war in Syria has renewed their sense of dispossession. They’ve lost their point of reference in life.”
While it’s hard to look for signs of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Krähenbühl said the courage of UNRWA staff gives him real hope. UNRWA lost 11 staff members in Gaza and 14 in Syria, and another 25 are detained or missing in Syria. UNRWA’s staff are paying a huge price and exposing themselves to constant threats, he said. Those men and women workers are making a major contribution day after day. They’re heroes, along with other Palestinians who are continuing to function. Krähenbühl described them not as victims, but as “actors in their own destiny.”
We should all be so brave.
Ambassador Ted Kattouf, president of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST), said that Americans need to put a face on human tragedy. Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who spent years in Israeli hospitals delivering Jewish babies, was that face during Israel’s 2008 war on Gaza. Dr. Abuelaish’s three daughters, 13, 15 and 21, were killed and another seriously wounded in that earlier assault. Desperate for medical assistance, he called his friend Shlomi Eldar, a presenter on Israel’s Channel 10, who broadcast live Dr. Abuelaish’s cries for help in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.
This time, Israeli gunboats killed four cousins playing football on a Gaza beach in front of TV reporters. But Americans quickly forgot those little faces, and their personal stories didn’t get told. One survivor, Muntasser, 11, whose brother was killed on the beach, cannot forget (according to a December 2014 Agence France-Presse story, an extremely rare follow-up report). In fact, Muntasser is haunted by memories and dreams about his playmates every night. Since the bombing, the boy is “in another world” and refuses to go to school, according to Muntasser’s father. “He becomes extremely violent, he breaks everything and then he starts banging his head against the walls. He even tried to throw himself off the roof.”
After three wars in six years, how can these children lead a normal life? “We have to get better at telling their stories,” Krähenbühl acknowledged. Then he described a scene he’ll never forget from Shifa hospital during the war. “I saw a 5-month-old baby who had been shelled in an UNRWA school,” he recalled. “It was something you never want to see in your life. I turned to look at the parents. They had such a look of despair as they watched the child they were not able to protect.”
Reporters kept asking Krähenbühl why Gaza civilians didn’t just leave as Israeli bombs dropped. “It’s obscene,” he told them. “They had nowhere to go.” As for the investigations of the seven Israeli shellings of UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip, which killed at least 46 civilians, “we’ll wait to see the findings of the investigations,” Krähenbühl said. If Israel isn’t held accountable the same thing will happen again.
“This is beyond politics,” Krähenbühl emphasized, saying we have to convey the human cost of war. Come to Gaza and see for yourself, Krähenbühl urged his listeners, and tell your countrymen Palestinians’ stories. Or help Palestinian refugees come here and tell their own stories.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), thanked Krähenbühl for his work helping the Palestinian people help themselves. He’d attended UNRWA schools himself, Awad said, and now his daughter works for UNRWA in Jerusalem. He went on to ask if there was a strategic plan to improve education in the camps.
“Everywhere I speak there is someone in the audience who graduated from UNRWA schools,” Krähenbühl responded with a smile. Then he told another story, about a Palestinian refugee from Syria now living in Lebanon’s Ein el Helwe camp—which, incidentally, has a 100 percent success rate in baccalaureate exams. The girl, who lost her father and brother during the family’s escape to Lebanon, put her heart and soul into studying for the baccalaureate and earned the highest possible marks on her exam. Of course, obtaining a job after graduation is another challenge for Palestinian refugees, especially in Lebanon, he noted.
Krähenbühl commended President Mahmoud Abbas for visiting Gaza after the Israeli attack, but said that since then there has not been enough cooperation between the West Bank and Gaza. Attendees agreed that the Palestinian Authority should be on the ground showing solidarity and sustained engagement.
At the October 2014 Cairo conference international donors pledged $5.4 billion to rebuild Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $212 million in immediate assistance, saying that the residents of the Gaza Strip “need our help, desperately.” Israel damaged or destroyed dozens of factories and major infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water treatment plants and Gaza’s only power station.
UNRWA has distributed $93.1 million to assist some 60,000 Gaza families to repair damage to their homes. In January, due to a lack of funds, and unfulfilled pledges, the agency was forced to suspend the cash assistance program. Contributions from donors “dried up,” Krähenbühl said, perhaps because donors fear that Gaza is a “money pit.” They may be worried that if they rebuild Gaza, it will be destroyed again in another six months.
The future is unsustainable, said Bill Corcoran, president of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). NGOs can’t keep up with the deteriorating situation throughout the Middle East. People are entitled to basic services, but the number of people who need these services has grown while the rhythm of donor contributions has slowed. Even the bad exchange rate for dollars has had a profound effect, Corcoran said. We need more assertive fund-raising and more work with our own government, roundtable attendees agreed.
The world can’t hold back on either political or humanitarian support, Krähenbühl stated: “Gaza needs both.” He urged NGOs and their supporters to advocate for Palestinian rights, not just services, and help reinvigorate the international community. Gaza cannot continue to live for years under a blockade. It’s a catastrophic situation. An empty peace process is not enough. People in the region deserve better.
For more information, please visit <www.unrwausa.org>.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
“We must not fail in Gaza” is the title of a statement issued Feb. 26 and signed by 30 international aid agencies working in Gaza, including UNRWA.
The agencies expressed their concern about the slow pace of reconstruction and the worsening living conditions in Gaza, as well as the ongoing economic blockade imposed by Israel and the prevailing political stalemate. The 30 agencies warned that tensions are increasing, further fueled by the non-payment of salaries for public employees. The statement mentions the nearly one million children in Gaza who have experienced “unimaginable suffering” in three major conflicts in the past six years, with an estimated 400,000 in need of psychological support. The signatories request Israel, as the occupying power, to comply with international law. Furthermore, the statement calls on all parties to resume peace negotiations. “We must realize the vision of making Gaza a liveable place and a cornerstone of peace and security for all.” —D.C.H.