Sitting in the warm Spring sun, 72-year-old Um Jawad Shalloul chatted with family members and neighbors in her new home, built on the site of a former Israeli settlement near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
“We are nine family members here and we all were displaced from our original home in the Khan Younis refugee camp in 2004, when an Israeli army bulldozer knocked it down during the second intifada,” Shalloul told The Electronic Intifada, adding, “I had some health complications in the past years of displacement due to the hard life me and my family have endured.”
Shalloul and her family are among the first to receive the keys of one of 223 new houses built by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), with the support of a $7.2 million grant from the Netherlands that also funded roads, water infrastructure and an electricity system.
During the past eight years, the Shalloul family moved from one rented home to another, including a two-year stay in a 16-square-meter store.
Shalloul’s daughter-in-law Lubna also looked forward to the semblance of a normal life in a new home. “When our home in Khan Younis refugee camp was destroyed by the Israelis, I lost all my furniture including my bed for my wedding more than 12 years ago. I just hope that we can now buy new furniture and live normally, and many thanks go to those who helped ensure safe shelter for us,” the mother of seven told The Electronic Intifada.
The new Shalloul home is spacious, with two stories and has a relatively large yard. Um Jawad is looking forward to planting edible crops.
According to UNRWA, the Dutch-funded residential neighborhood is a part of the agency’s efforts to rehouse thousands of displaced families in Gaza and took about nine months to complete. About 80 percent of the families who will receive the 223 homes were displaced in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 attack on Gaza, according to UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna.
Other housing projects underway include ones funded by Saudi Arabia and Japan. However, according to Abu Hasna, these vital housing projects are still short of raw materials which Israel restricts from entry into the Gaza Strip.
“Let me emphasize that we still need more than sixty truckloads of raw building materials on a daily basis,” Abu Hasna said, although only about a third of that was coming in. Recently, Israel said it would allow more vital UNRWA-run housing projects to resume in the coastal territory.
Dutch double standards
“We feel that these shelters represent a new beginning for the refugees,” said Birgitta Tazelaar, the representative of the Netherlands to the Palestinian Authority in a 24 April UNRWA press release, “We hope that they become a symbol of hope for all Gazans who dream of a life free of restrictions and poverty.”
Tazelaar also urged Israel to ease restrictions and allow more homes to be completed.
The Netherlands, which has given $154 million to UNRWA since 2007, is the agency’s eighth largest donor. Yet the country’s generosity in terms of humanitarian aid contrasts with the pro-Israel hardline the Dutch government has taken in recent years, including most recently blocking an EU report on Israeli settler violence against Palestinians.
A chance to raise children normally
For the lucky few receiving new homes, however, such considerations were far away. In another corner of the Dutch neighborhood, Nael Abed, a 34-year-old from Rafah, a city near Khan Younis, was preparing to move into his house.
Abed’s original home in Rafah was located near the Gaza International Airport, but was destroyed when the Israeli military invaded the area in 2006, severely damaging the airport and surrounding buildings.
“There is nothing more precious than having my own home, in which I can at least bring up my children quietly and normally,” Abed told The Electronic Intifada.
“I cannot describe my feeling being re-housed after long years of displacement,” he added.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.