A shortfall in funding has forced UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, to suspend aid to thousands of Gaza residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged during Israel’s military assault last summer.
It is another bitter reminder for Palestinians in Gaza that they are left to fend for themselves after eight years of siege and a series of major military assaults that have turned the tiny coastal territory into a disaster zone cut off from the rest of the world.
UNRWA stated today that there is a shortfall of $585 million for the $720 million the agency says is required for the tens of thousands whose homes need repairing and for rental subsidies to those made homeless.
“While some funds remain available to begin the reconstruction of totally destroyed homes, the agency has exhausted all funding to support repairs and rental subsidies,” UNRWA said, adding that the freezing of assistance may cause large numbers of refugees to return to agency schools for shelter.
More than a quarter of Gaza’s population was displaced during last summer’s violence, with nearly 300,000 seeking shelter in UNRWA schools.
Not even these emergency shelters were spared by Israel — UNRWA schools were hit by shells or other weaponry in seven instances; children were killed by Israeli artillery as they slept on the floor of a classroom in one such UN designated shelter.
Twelve thousand displaced Palestnians in Gaza continue to take shelter at UNRWA schools, the agency said today.
“UNRWA in Gaza has so far provided over $77 million to 66,000 Palestine refugee families to repair their homes or find a temporary alternative,” Robert Turner, UNRWA director in Gaza, is quoted as saying in the agency’s statement.
Of the $5.4 billion pledged for the reconstruction of Gaza at a Cairo conference last October, half of which the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority immediately earmarked for itself, “virtually none of it has reached Gaza,” Turner added.
“It is unclear why this funding has not been forthcoming,” he said.
More than 96,000 refugees’ homes were destroyed during the 51 days of relentless attacks in July and August, according to UNRWA.
The majority of Gaza’s estimated 1.8 million residents are refugees who were displaced from towns, cities and villages in present-day Israel during the establishment of the state in 1948 and who have since been denied their right to return.
Along with the West Bank and Syrian Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
More than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, including at least 500 children, were killed during Israel’s summer bombardment.
Babies freeze to death
The task of rebuilding Gaza’s housing stock — at least five percent of which was destroyed or badly damaged during the last onslaught — is a matter of life or death.
“People are literally sleeping amongst the rubble, children have died of hypothermia,” Robert Turner said.
Two infants in Gaza died of cold exposure during a winter storm that struck the region earlier this month, and which also caused the temporary displacement of hundreds of people due to flooding, according to the UN monitoring group OCHA.
Palestinians in Gaza are enduring the cold winter months with only a few hours of electricity each day.
OCHA recorded the deaths of two small children who died after their home in the Beach refugee camp caught fire on 3 January.
“Initial investigations suggest that the fire was caused by a candle,” OCHA stated. “According to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, 26 people, including 21 children, have died in electricity shortage related incidents since 2010.”
Gaza’s sole power plant has not run at full capacity for several months because of the lack of funds for fuel.
According to OCHA, the funding crisis is due to the expiration of a tax exemption for fuel purchases granted by the Ramallah-based Ministry of Finance. The further impoverishment of Gaza’s population this summer, resulting in the sharp decrease of revenues collected for energy consumption, is also a factor, the group says.
While UNRWA says that its cash assistance program has been frozen because of funding gaps, the rebuilding of Gaza is ultimately under the control of the very party responsible for its destruction.
The secret terms of a UN-backed Gaza reconstruction mechanism “include onerous controls of building supplies and intrusive monitoring of Palestinian families seeking to rebuild homes destroyed by Israel,” The Electronic Intifada revealed in October.
Israel meanwhile continues to violate on an almost daily basis the ceasefire that it reached with armed groups in Gaza on 26 August.
The call from Palestinians in Gaza at the time was that there should be no such agreement so long as Israel’s years-long siege — imposed in an act of collective punishment after the elected Hamas government took control over the administration of the internal affairs of the territory — remains in place.
“For the last seven years, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to a strict closure. By shutting the borders, Israel has slowly suffocated Gaza, subjecting us to a process of deliberate de-development,” Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, commented amidst the summer’s terrible violence.
“A ceasefire is not enough. It will not end the suffering. It will only move us from the horror of death by bombardment to the horror of death by slow strangulation,” he added.
Though the terms of the ceasefire agreement were never made public, they reportedly called for the opening of Gaza’s crossings for the movement of people and goods.
That has not happened, and the reconstruction mechanism ensures that Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza is tighter today than before the summer war.
And once again Palestinian refugees in Gaza are living in tents, like they did after their original displacement in 1948.