Thousands in Gaza remain displaced after their homes were destroyed or damaged during Israel’s aggression in May. Others have been forced to move back into what remains of their homes.
At the beginning of July, Nisreen al-Awour, 40, and her 15 children were informed they had to leave a school run by the UN in the Jabaliya refugee camps.
Nisreen had been displaced during Israel’s aggression on Gaza in May, when her house – in the Sudaniya area of northwestern Gaza – suffered massive damage in one of Israel’s bombing raids that month.
There had been no possibility of reconstruction in the intervening period. The house remained as damaged as when she left it, and she was afraid to move back to a house that barely provided shelter for her husband, Ashraf, who is in poor health and had chosen to stay in order to safeguard what was left of the family’s home when it was bombed.
But she was left with no choice. Today, she and Ashraf and their 15 children are sheltering in what remains of their home – three walls are barely standing and the roof is full of holes – and Nisreen is angry and upset at the UN for letting her family down.
“My house is unlivable,” Nisreen told The Electronic Intifada. “I am afraid the walls might fall on us suddenly.”
Some 91,000 people in Gaza were displaced during the May bombardment.
Most have since returned to their homes, but in late June for more than 8,000 people with homes totally or partially destroyed that simply was not possible. Nisreen and her family would be safer in alternative housing than in the remnants of their home, but have no other recourse.
And with Israel sealing Gaza’s borders to most building materials, reconstruction of the 2,000 homes that were so damaged as to be uninhabitable has been effectively prevented.
Many of the people displaced had sought refuge at facilities belonging to the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, which is the largest provider of aid in an area in which more than 70 percent of a population of some two million are refugees.
But come summer, UNRWA, chronically underfunded despite the renewal of US aid, wanted their buildings back to run summer camps for children.
Along with Nisreen’s family, another 22 families were made to leave the school in Jabaliya, while eight families had to vacate their places at an UNRWA school in the Beach refugee camp.
Some received help with rent, but only, according to UNRWA, if their homes had been completely destroyed in May. Most had to seek shelter with relatives or return to the shells of their old homes.
Still, all this might have passed as just another hardship of the extraordinarily tough living conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip had it not been for some extremely ill-judged remarks made by one of UNRWA’s senior officials that described Israel’s strikes on Gaza in May as sophisticated.
“I have the impression there is a huge sophistication in the way the Israeli military struck over the 11 days,” Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s director of operations in Gaza, told an Israeli TV channel on 23 May, not long after the attack had ended.
He acknowledged that “more than 60 children were killed, 19 of whom went to UNRWA schools.” But somehow that suggested to him that “the precision was there” even as he called the deaths of civilians “unacceptable and unbearable.”
Unsurprisingly, his remarks went down extremely poorly, especially in Gaza. UNRWA cost-cutting measures and job reductions over the past few years coinciding with Schmale’s appointment have come to be seen as an attempt at undermining the rights of Palestinian refugees generally.
Two human rights organizations, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council, issued a joint statement condemning his remarks, which, they wrote, “completely ignored the crimes committed during the latest Israeli offensive.”
Angry voices online, both from Gaza and outside, denounced his comments or called for his resignation while protests were arranged in front of UNRWA’s offices in Gaza that drew hundreds of people.
Photo: Nisreen al-Awour in her destroyed house in Sudaniya, Gaza, Palestine. Source: Ashraf Amra/APA images.