While their basic needs might be covered, the uncertainty of the future and the lack of security are often the hardest feelings to cope with
“We feel isolated. Our neighbourhood is far and we cannot go to weddings or see our other family members,” complains Ekbal al-Masri. A mother of nine children, she has been living for six months in one room of the Beit Hanoun Boys’ Preparatory School A, known as al-Shawa school, after their home was destroyed during last summer's Israeli assault.
Six months after the ceasefire, a number of Palestinians have left such emergency shelters and returned to their homes, some of which are damaged, or rent flats elsewhere or stay with relatives. But some 10,000 displaced Palestinians, whose homes were destroyed and who have no alternatives, continue to live in 15 schools, now designated “community centres” (CCs), managed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The school in Beit Hanoun hosts 66 families, more than 300 people, with either one or two families in each room.
The current situation in the Beit Hanoun school seems quite under control, in comparison to the chaotic scenes during the height of the offensive, when the number of displaced Palestinians reached 500,000 - roughly one-third of the population. Then, UNRWA schools and staff were overwhelmed by the numbers. A single room might have housed more than 100 people, and some were sleeping in stairways or corridors. It is estimated that at least 100,000 housing units were damaged or completely destroyed by Israeli attacks, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.
Displaced Palestinians who continue to live in these shelters face multiple issues. As Nehad al-Masri explains: “I don't feel comfortable here. I do not have privacy and we have no news for the rebuilding. We are thankful for UNRWA to provide the basic services but if they will ask us to go out, where will we go? There is a shortage of places to rent.”
'We do not feel free'
Being far from their neighbourhood means also that children often have problems getting to their school. Aya al-Masri, mother of 12, explains that her children must walk for two hours to reach class on time. “We do not feel free,” she adds. Aya suffers from diabetes. She manages to get the medicine from UNRWA, but she says that they are supposed to be stored in a refrigerator, which they do not have.
The lack of privacy seems to be one of the most difficult issues for families after many months, especially for women who complain that the bathrooms were far away. At the time of the visit, only four showers had been installed.
Schools, obviously, are not designed to host so many people for such a long time, especially during winter. Many cannot afford to buy electric heaters - which will not work during the numerous electricity cuts. Some of the Palestinians in the community centre complained about the cold, and some children were sick due to the bad weather conditions. Nihad al-Masri said that the food was not enough for the whole family.
One child who looked sad, buried under blankets and watching TV, was still in shock, according to his mother, after a fire that broke out the previous week, killing 16-month-old Ezzedin Jad al-Kafarneh. The death was a tragic reminder of the vulnerability of these displaced Palestinians. According to the staff, the children were left alone by their parents, and one 12-year-old girl was trying to cook for her siblings when the fire erupted. The many flammable materials in the room caught fire in seconds.
“It's a tragedy,” says Mohammed Abu-Qamar, the UNRWA coordinator for the community centres in northern Gaza. “Many people are angry and frustrated. People in Beit Hanoun are mostly farmers, and their agricultural lands were also destroyed.”
Basic needs covered
Despite such difficulties, life in the school has gotten organised somehow, now that the numbers are more manageable and processes have been put in place. In the Beit Hanoun school, different staff members have organised various activities and workshops on hygiene and heath issues. A clinic is open daily. Food is distributed once a day, and additional blankets and mats for the winter have been provided. Some families brought beds for the parents and divided the classrooms with curtains to organise the space into separate bedrooms and eating areas.
Their basic needs might be covered, but for many, the uncertainty of the future and the lack of security are often the hardest feelings to cope with. When asked how long they might stay in the school, most people could not answer. How can they remain hopeful when after six months, the rebuilding process is still being hindered and almost nonexistent? They are also aware that some displaced Palestinians following the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive known as “Cast Lead” had to wait years before getting new housing.
Some also expressed fears that UNRWA would ask them to leave after distributing payments for rent. Even if the displaced Palestinians receive the financial aid, they still face the shortage of rental housing in Gaza and the lack of building materials. On the black market, the prices for cement and building materials have soared due to the shortage.
UNRWA coordinator Mohammed Abu-Qamar says that the displaced Palestinians who receive the financial support “should” leave once they get the first instalment, but no one would be forced to do so if they did not have actual housing elsewhere.
Before the destruction of agricultural lands in the Israeli attacks, the majority of Beit Hanoun Palestinians supported their families through farming. Now deprived of their livelihood, the displaced became dependant on the daily meals provided by UNRWA in schools. Hence, leaving CCs would result in an additional challenge - finding food on their own.
But looming over the entire operation of sheltering the displaced Palestinians is the serious financial crisis currently faced by UNRWA. The agency is under exceeding pressure to find places for students who used to attend the schools that are now serving as community centres. Some schools have been pressed to institute a three-shift school day in order to provide education to so many students. In January, UNRWA also had to suspend its cash assistance programme that supported repairs and provided rental subsidies due to lack of funds, provoking demonstrations. Some families who had left the CCs wanted to come back, as they could not pay the rent without assistance. The threat of discontinuing assistance to the families who already have started renting using UNRWA support only adds to already high tension in the Gaza Strip.
Aid coming up short
The figures are striking: the humanitarian news service IRIN has reported that of the $5.4bn pledged during the October Cairo conference, only five percent had actually reached Gaza by February 2015.
The plight of the displaced Palestinians rarely reaches the headlines, as Gaza rapidly disappeared from international news after the ceasefire ended 50-day-long Israeli military offensive in August last year. Five babies are reported to have died due to harsh conditions in the makeshift shelters.
In the schools that serve as shelters, as well as for all displaced Palestinians, living in uncertainty means that there is little room for the psychological healing so necessary after the traumatic events of last summer. The rebuilding is not only a physical process - it has a profound psychological dimension. New homes will not alleviate all of Gaza's suffering, but this is a necessary step. When asked about the message they would give to the outside world, Aya al-Masri calls for international action: “We need help to build better lives, to build our homes, to live in dignity.”
Until now, despite all the promises, such calls remain unanswered.