Gaza Humanitarian Crisis Stretches Limits of Aid Organizations

Flour sacks arrive at UNRWA’s food distribution centre, Beach Camp, Gaza Strip. UNRWA has been providing food aid for around 1 million people in the West Bank and Gaza for the much of the last three years. However reductions in donations to the Agency’s Emergency Appeal from donor nations means that UNRWA now provides only 30 per cent of the nutritional needs of vulnerable refugees in Gaza. (UNRWA)

Israel has destroyed three times as many Palestinian homes in the past 12 months as it did during the first 31 months of the Intifada, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Over the four-year period up to 15 May 2004, Israel demolished or damaged beyond repair over 3,000 Palestinian homes. Of those, more than 2,000 have been in the Gaza Strip. These demolitions have left 18,400 Palestinians in Gaza homeless, of whom 12,600 are in the Rafah area. The figure does not include the destruction in the Rafah since 15 May 2004. In the first three days of Israel’s May incursion into Rafah, 39 Palestinians were killed,113 injured, and over 1,000 made homeless. The humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is stretching the limits of the Palestinian people as well as of humanitarian aid organizations working in the region, including UNRWA, explained Maher Nasser, the Chief of UNRWA’s Liaison Office in New York. Nasser was speaking at a 20 May 2004 briefing at the DC-based Palestine Center.

The Impact on Palestinian Families

For the most part, the homes demolished by Israel were built over many years and enlarged to accommodate expanding families. Many of the houses were the home of two or three generations of refugees. Most families have put their life’s savings into the homes and are given little or no time to evacuate their belongings. UNRWA field teams have told heart-wrenching stories of Palestinian children sifting through the debris trying to save a schoolbook or their homework, or of old women pulling out an old jumper or cardigan stuck under the pile of rubble. For the older refugees, the demolitions mean that they are once again forced to live in a tent and be dependent on humanitarian aid, an experience they never believed they would have to go through again. Nasser spelled out the way in which Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes has increased from year to year. In the Gaza Strip, Israel destroyed an average of 11 homes per month during the last three months of 2000. In 2001, an average of 35 homes per month were destroyed, 25 in 2002, and 65 in 2003. The figure shot up to an average of 69 home demolitions per month in the first four months of 2004. And in the first 15 days of May 2004, 191 homes were destroyed leaving 2,200 Palestinian from Gaza homeless-around half from Rafah. Nasser pointed out that the number of Palestinian homes destroyed and families left homeless in the past 12 months is almost equal to that in the first 31 months of the Intifada-an almost three-fold increase in the rate of destruction.

The Financial Burden

Even before the latest Israeli incursion in mid-May, UNRWA had estimated that $32 million would be needed to assist the 1,183 Palestinians determined as eligible for assistance in re-housing in Gaza. However, the number is likely to increase once the final assessment of the latest destruction is calculated. The funds necessary have already increased from UNRWA’s original monetary assessment in May 2003, which was $21 million. Nasser expressed concern that funding for emergency appeals has declined. He noted that UNRWA’s 2003 appeal for $195 million received $93 million-only 45 % of what was needed. This year’s appeal for $193 million has so far generated pledges of some $60 million. Nasser said UNRWA field offices in the West Bank and Gaza have had to reallocate funds “to what they perceived to be priority interventions to provide a social safety net for the neediest of the refuges.” Malnutrition is a looming disaster and food aid programs by humanitarian organizations have managed to arrest greater malnutrition. However, Nasser warned that the program is threatened with reduction due to the lack of funds. Nasser predicts that UNRWA may only meet 20% of daily caloric needs instead of the targeted 60-65%.

Picking Up the Pieces

Aside from protesting the demolitions as a form of collective punishment and a violation of international law, UNRWA has provided destitute families with tents, blankets, food and drinking water. If the funds are available, UNRWA provides small cash grants and assistance with rental costs. Depending on the funds and the availability of location, UNRWA rebuilds alternative housing. According to Nasser, UNRWA has built 288 new housing units for 301 refugee families in the Gaza Strip who have had their homes destroyed by Israel. Another 310 units are under construction and 356 are under design for 728 families in Gaza. In the West Bank, UNRWA’s largest re-housing project was in the Jenin refugee camp after an Israeli incursion in April 2002 caused mass home demolitions. With $26 million from the United Arab Emirates, UNRWA rebuilt 420 housing units.

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    Maher Nasser is Chief of UNRWA’s Liaison Office in New York and has been with the Agency in various capacities since 1994. The above text is based on remarks delivered on 20 May 2004 by Maher Nasser at the Palestine Center, the educational arm of the Jerusalem Fund.