Picking Up the Pieces in Gaza



by Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General,
UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

There is a daily grind in Gaza. A grinding of bulldozer gears. The churning of heavy machinery and the crash of concrete on concrete accompany it. Together this is a soundtrack of misery and despair. It is the sound of another family home being demolished.

It is the unfortunate lot of many Palestinians that the loss of their homes to the maws of Israeli military bulldozers or powerful explosive charges is now so commonplace that it fails to make the grade as news. After all, something that happens every day, usually more than once a day, eventually stops being news. But it doesn’t stop being terrifying.

At the end of May 2003 a total of 1,134 homes had been demolished by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip, making almost 10,000 individuals homeless. Unfortunately this is not a policy on the wane. During the first two years of the intifada the average number of homes demolished in Gaza - a statistical category both depressing and surreal - was 32 per month. Since the start of 2003 that average has risen to 72. Disturbingly, the publication of the 'roadmap' to peace has so far had no impact.

Very few of the demolitions target the families of suicide bombers or of those wanted by Israel. Instead the victims are simply people living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those living near the Egyptian border in Rafah in the south of Gaza have the misfortune of being in a place where Israel feels the need to widen its security zone at the border. Hundreds of homes, dozens of small shops, mosques and communities that once huddled there against the border have been churned into rubble.

Sifting through the wreckage . . . Gaza 2003

Rubble
Photo: Electronic Intifada

In Khan Younis the residents of a refugee camp who have the bad luck to overlook the Gush Qatif settlement block have similarly had their homes razed. Tanks and bulldozers come in the night. Instructions to evacuate are shouted through loudhailers and families grab what meagre possessions they can before their world comes crashing down. This is repeated over and over again, night after night, with an appalling regularity.

The United Nations, in the form of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), tries to pick up the pieces after these demolitions. As the agency responsible for the humanitarian needs of more than 75 per cent of Gazans, it immediately supplies tents, blankets, food and drinking water to the newly homeless. If it has the funds, it helps out with rental costs for those refugees - the majority - without the income to cover their new accommodation costs.



Text as originally published in the International Herald Tribune

And UNRWA picks up the pieces in other ways too. Its schools in Gaza are facing a tidal wave of traumatised children, many of whom have been roused from their beds by the bulldozers or lie awake, fearful that their home will be next. UNRWA now provides trauma counselling in each of its 169 schools for these innocent victims of the intifada.

In the longer term UNRWA has pledged to provide a new shelter for all of those whose homes have been lost. The costs of such a pledge are staggering - upwards of $21 million is needed just to assist those who have already been affected and more come every day. Furthermore Gaza is already one of the world’s most crowded spots. There is precious little available building space - and finding plots that will be safe from any future demolition is proving difficult. So far the agency has been able to erect just 120 new homes, with another 185 under construction.

UNRWA this month issued an appeal to the international community for funds to support its emergency operations in Gaza and the West Bank. Included in that appeal is a request for $21 million to allow for the repair and reconstruction of damaged and destroyed refugee shelters in the Gaza camps. Another $1.1 million is needed in the West Bank.

Necessary as funding for new shelters is, money is not the answer. Israel has legitimate security concerns, and much suffering of its own, but its security is poorly served by a policy that creates fresh anger and despair every day. What is needed is a just and durable peace that will allow the children of Gaza to again sleep soundly at night.

June 2003

Flag