Tens of thousands remain homeless in Gaza

A Palestinian rests in the ruins of a house after returning to the Tuffah neighborhood of eastern Gaza City, 31 August.

Ashraf Amra APA images

One week after a ceasefire halting an Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians remain displaced, sheltered in United Nations schools and other facilities.

On Sunday, 58,071 people still lived in 36 UN schools across the coastal enclave, according to Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

With 15,670 housing units damaged, including 2,276 completely destroyed, and up to 500,000 Palestinians displaced over the 51-day onslaught, the number staying with extended families, in temporary rentals and at government and informal shelters is probably higher.

An estimated 108,000 Palestinians will need long-term solutions because their homes were too severely damaged to inhabit or destroyed altogether, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

The crisis is compounded by the fact that there was already a deficit of 71,000 housing units for Gaza’s nearly 1.8 million residents even prior to the Israeli attack, UN OCHA estimates.

And with reconstruction yet to begin, and likely to prove difficult due to ongoing Israeli restrictions on the importation of building materials, displaced Palestinians face uncertain futures.

“They might give us a tent”

“We won’t know until they make a decision at UNRWA,” Asma al-Rumi said Sunday at UNRWA Boys’ Prep School A in central Rafah — near Gaza’s border with Egypt — where she and her family have lived since 18 July.

“After they go see our home, they might give us some money to rent another place until they fix it. Or they might give us a tent.”

UNRWA and government schools will reopen in two weeks, almost three weeks after term should begin, but long before any resolution of an extreme housing crisis their buildings have partly relieved.

An assessment by the Shelter Cluster, a consortium of UN and international aid agencies, estimated it will take 20 years, under current Israeli import restrictions, to rebuild Gaza’s devastated housing stock, including 5,000 units damaged during earlier military offensives.

In the meantime, al-Rumi, a refugee from Bir al-Saba (a town in present-day Israel known in Hebrew as Beersheva) and a fourth-grade boys’ teacher at another UNRWA school in Rafah, faces the prospect of return to the UNRWA-issued tents used by many of the more than 750,000 Palestinian refugees uprooted during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that preceded and followed Israel’s foundation in 1948.

Her family and their neighbors resisted their most recent displacement for as long as they could, she said.

“We live in the east of Rafah, in al-Shoka near the barrier. They called us on 17 July and told us to leave our houses.

“They called the whole neighborhood, many times. Initially we refused to leave. But after a relative was killed, we evacuated on 18 July.”

War crime

On 1 August, Israeli forces sealed the area, preventing its Palestinian residents from leaving, and showered it with artillery fire, killing 190 people over two bloody days.

The barrage, which shattered a humanitarian ceasefire, constituted a war crime, according to Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, both of which are based in Gaza.

On 3 August, the rain of fire reached Boys’ Prep School A, where al-Rumi and nearly 3,000 other displaced Palestinians had taken shelter.

Nine people were killed in the attack that day, UNRWA stated.

The death toll later rose to ten, according to Al Jazeera English.

Although she heard the blast, al-Rumi said, she was not outside to see it.

“I was there, but inside the school, not near the gate. My brother was near the gate, getting ready for prayers. But thank God, nothing happened to him.”

But with so many people sharing such a small space, she added, everyone felt the loss. “Twenty-seven families, with 115 people, lived in one classroom,” she said. “Men and boys slept in the yard of the school.”

The strike came as shelter residents had formed lines to receive food from aid workers, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

Unusual protests

The attack, which followed six direct shellings of UNRWA shelters in the Gaza Strip over the 51-day offensive, sparked unusual protests from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who branded it “a moral outrage and a criminal act” and “yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law.” The US State Department called it “disgraceful” and claimed to be “appalled.”

“For this particular installation we notified the Israeli army on 33 separate occasions that this school in Rafah was being used to accommodate the displaced, the last time only an hour before the incident,” Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said in a statement.

“The incident in Rafah is a further tragic and unacceptable reminder that there is nowhere safe in Gaza for people to take refuge. No one feels secure and given that Gaza is enclosed by a barrier, there is also nowhere safe for them to run,” he added.

“Awful experience”

To put it mildly, Boys’ Prep School A leaves much to be desired as a home.

“It’s an awful experience,” al-Rumi said. “Living here is not a life.”

“Now it is better than before,” she added, referring to the many residents who have returned to intact homes. “Before there were many people, in a small space, with a lot of diseases. It was crowded, with a lot of noise and a lack of clean water. There was only one meal a day. We had to buy the rest ourselves. They didn’t give us enough blankets or mattresses to sleep on.”

Showers, she said, were only installed in the school’s bathrooms ten days before the ceasefire.

Palestinians wait to receive food rations at an UNRWA distribution center in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on 28 August.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

And the shelter’s administration can make it difficult to lead what remains of a normal life, she said.

“They come every night to count us, how many people are still here,” she explained. “If one of your family is absent, they don’t give him meals on other days. When we talk with them about it, they say it [the instruction] isn’t from them, but the people in charge, in higher positions.”

But her family’s lot is better than many, she said. Their house, though heavily damaged, with a demolished roof and cracked walls, windows and water tanks, is still standing and can be repaired.

Displaced Palestinians need relief efforts to prioritize their actual needs, she added.

“They bring us things like shampoo. We appreciate this, but we don’t need it. We need them rebuilding our homes.”

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza. He co-edited The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag, an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange. Follow him on Twitter: @jncatron.