One week after an August 26 ceasefire halting an Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians remained displaced, sheltered in United Nations schools and other facilities.
On September 1, 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.
Israel’s 51-day onslaught damaged 15,670 houses, including 2276 completely destroyed, and up to 500,000 Palestinians were displaced.
About 108,000 Palestinians will need long-term solutions because their homes were too severely damaged to inhabit or were destroyed altogether, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
The crisis is compounded by the fact there was already a deficit of 71,000 houses for Gaza’s nearly 1.8 million residents even before the Israeli attack, UN OCHA estimated.
With reconstruction yet to begin, and likely to prove difficult due to ongoing Israeli restrictions on importing building materials, displaced Palestinians face uncertain futures.
“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 July 18.
“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.”
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. This includes 5000 units damaged during earlier military offensives.
Al-Rumi, a refugee from Bir al-Saba (a town in present-day Israel) and a fourth-grade boys’ teacher at another UNRWA school in Rafah, faces the prospect of return to the UNRWA-issued tents. These were 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 neighbours 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 neighbourhood, many times. Initially we refused to leave. But after a relative was killed, we evacuated on July 18.”
On August 1, Israeli forces sealed the area, preventing its Palestinian residents from leaving. They then showered it with artillery fire, killing 190 people over two bloody days.
The barrage, which shattered a humanitarian ceasefire, constituted a war crime, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said.
On August 3, the rain of fire reached Boys’ Prep School A, where al-Rumi and nearly 3000 other displaced Palestinians had taken shelter.
Nine people were killed in the attack that day, UNRWA said. The death toll later rose to ten, according to Al Jazeera English.
With so many people sharing such a small space, al-Rumi said 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 Palestinian Red Crescent Society.
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. He branded it “a moral outrage and a criminal act” and “yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law”.
The US State Department also calledit “disgraceful” and claimed to be “appalled.”
Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
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 fact 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 10 days before the ceasefire.
But her family’s lot is better than many, she said. Their house, though heavily damaged with a demolished roof and cracked walls, is still standing and can be repaired.
Displaced Palestinians need relief efforts to prioritise 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.”
[Abridged from Electronic Intifada. Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @jncatron.]