Gaza calling: conflict and displacement in the Gaza Strip
Robert Turner – Director of Operations – Gaza, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
Ahmed Tawatina – Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme
Sarah Adamczyk – Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) Project Manager, Norwegian Refugee Council
Simone Haysom **– Research Officer, Humanitarian Policy Group and co-author of Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability in the Gaza Strip
**Rushanara Ali MP – Labour Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, and Shadow Minister for International Development
Sam Farah – Deputy Head of Programmes and TV Presenter, BBC Arabic
This event is scheduled to launch Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability in the Gaza Strip, a look at internal displacement over the past ten years in Gaza.
Displacement is a common feature of life in Gaza; around 1.1 million people are currently considered displaced and 70% of the population are registered refugees. Yet the population faces multiple, often compounding vulnerabilities, as a result of the blockade and the long-running conflict. HPG’s work has looked at how internal displacement interacts with high levels of overcrowding, basic services that are overburdened and deteriorating, rising poverty and unemployment and on-going threats to safety and security.
This events aims to provide multiple perspectives on the challenges displacement poses to Palestinians in Gaza and those trying to provide assistance to them. Speakers will address the difficulties of measuring and reporting on the effects of displacement when people are prevented from truly fleeing danger as well as the complexities of responding to the needs of those displaced in the context of chronic and rising poverty in the population at large.
With a live video link to Gaza, this event will bring together Palestinian and international speakers to explore the multi-faceted effects of the conflict on civilians, and up-to-date assessment of how displaced populations have fared since the Pillar of Defence military operation in November 2012.
Simone noted that the report (Sanctuary in the city? Urban displacement and vulnerability in Gaza) is part of a larger HPG study on urban displacement and vulnerability, which has looked at seven case studies including Amman, Nairobi, Yei and Kabul. The studies sought to look at the challenges faced by displaced persons compared to those of the host population in an attempt to shed light on humanitarian operations on urban displacement.
The research was conducted with over three hundred participants placed into focus groups as well as with the assistance of individuals from academia, civil society, international organisations and much more. The topics chosen ranged from access to civil services and justice, concepts of protection and access to land and property rights.
Simone moved on to discuss the main causes of displacement within Gaza. She noted that Gaza is of a similar geographical size as Washington D.C, but has a significantly larger population: 1.6 million compared to 600.000 in D.C – causing severe overcrowding throughout the strip. Much of the urbanisation within Gaza is a result of growing fixed settlements and the expansion of refugee populations, which is comprised of 1.1 million refugees. There were a range of causes of displacement, primarily Israeli Airstrikes during military operations, and the bulldozing of property near to border lines pre 2005 and Israeli settlements. She further highlighted the resulting housing crisis from these actions which resulted in individuals living in rental homes or being hosted with relatives. Special emphasis was given to the complications arising from the Israeli blockade and the lack of construction materials in preventing the reconstruction projects going ahead. The report explained how the crisis of housing helped to compound and enhance certain vulnerabilities within the society; such as contributing to poor mental health, lower educational outcomes for children and potentially domestic violence.
The report also addresses the safety nets which have been employed to provide basic services, food support and income and rent support to the general population and specifically to displaced persons by UN agencies and international and local NGOs. In light of the important role that safety nets play, the report addresses the reliability and sustainability of these safety nets in the context of growing needs.
Sarah discussed the impact of the recent Pillar of Defence operation on displacement and the roles of UNRWA and the NRC. The night before the ceasefire, 7 days into the conflict, leaflets were dropped urging individuals to leave their homes. UNRWA opened the doors of their schools to over 1700 families. Almost immediately after the ceasefire was announced, nearly everyone who sought shelter at the UNRWA schools returned home or to host communities. She further highlighted that a lot of the displacement in general is quite ‘hidden’ as people seek shelter with host communities, relatives and rental accommodation, which means it is quite difficult to assess the extent of displacement for those who experienced housing loss or damage.
Ahmed, author of ‘Stress and coping under siege’ addressed the impact of this situation on the mental health of the individuals of Gaza. He described life in Gaza like living in a cage, and highlighted that it has contributed to despair, depression, dependency and division. In his study, he found that approximately 3% of people in Gaza, especially youth, harbour suicidal thoughts and noted that the main driver of mental health problems is the occupation, due to factors such as restrictions on freedom of movement, poverty and more.
Rushanara later stressed the great risk poor mental health is to the society. She stated that the psychological challenges individuals face, the frustration of being unable to realise their potential and the lack of opportunities available, even through education result in a feeling of hopelessness and is a recipe for disaster. Combined, this could lead to further conflict and animosity.
Simone began by explaining the importance and value of education within the society, noting that respondents within the study mentioned that they have had to decrease investment in education for children in order to cope with financial obligations such as rental and other payment obligations.
Robert further addressed this topic by analysing the results of severe poverty on education and the role played by UNRWA in addressing this need. UNRWA currently provides education to Palestinians through the creation of 245 schools which employs 8000 teachers and educates 226,000 students from grades one through nine. However, Robert also noted that based on the struggles within the society there has been an increase in negative returns on education as the more educated an individual is the more likely he or she is to be unemployed.
Aid provision and dependency
Robert detailed UNRWA’s role and responsibilities in Gaza. UNRWA is the only UN organisation that specifically addresses Palestinian refugees and carries out direct implementation. UNRWA has embarked on massive construction projects and UNRWA expenditures in Gaza represented 18% of the GDP in 2012. He went on to say that the budget for UNRWA is approximately 500 million per year, comprised of construction, human development and emergency assistance, the latter of which is chronically underfunded. He also noted that the prevalence of poverty is due to the various restrictions by the Israeli government. To highlight the extent of this poverty he stated that UNRWA distributes food to over 800 thousand of the 1.2 million refugees in Gaza and the World Food Program (WFP) distributes food to over 200,000 more, resulting in over one million individuals receiving food aid. Despite this, 44% of the population remain food insecure.
Sarah described NRC’s work in Gaza, first noting that the NRC is primarily responsible for shelter coordination, education - through collaboration with UNRWA - and legal assistance which addresses problems associated with home ownership, documentation and the qualification of reconstruction grants. She argued that the reliance on aid can create a risk for long term dependence despite the desire within local communities for employment and trade opportunities. She added that the solution to the issue of poverty is the removal of the blockade and associated restrictions.
Simone further elaborated on aid provision and access, remarking that refugees can be better off than non-refugees due to easier access to aid. Non-refugees can be reliant on aid from national structures, which is often dependent on political affiliation. However she stressed that though there is a need for aid; participants expressed a desire for self-sufficiency and called for aid to be focused on livelihoods support and materials for the opening or restoring of businesses.
Ahmed further argued that within Gaza some perceive being a refugee as a privilege as it allows access to food aid and other resources. Responding to the UN report ‘Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?’ which predicts that if the economy remains closed Gaza would be unliveable by 2020, he stressed that life in the Gaza strip is already ‘unliveable’ for all and should not be tolerated.
Robert later clarified this perception that the refugees are better off by stating that this is due to the fact that the refugees only have to go to UNRWA for basic needs such as health and education. Non-refugees receive assistance through various mediums such as the government, UNICEF, WFP and other NGOs. However he argued that statistically the conditions for both groups are often the same.
Rushanara highlighted the challenges facing the United Kingdom and the international community in providing support for Gaza. She elaborated on the approach of the United Kingdom to the Gaza crisis, stating that the UK, through the International Development Aid Budget, has contributed approximately £86 million towards development in Gaza. However she criticised the UK’s failure to assert its influence in international affairs and emphasized the importance of applying pressure on the USA to lead the way in renewing negotiations between Israel and Palestine, especially to lift the restrictions and blockade placed on Gaza. She further stated that it is imperative that Britain and the rest of the European Union step up to the challenge of addressing the issue of movement within and out of Gaza as it has proven to negatively impact economic activity and wellbeing.
Ahmed highlighted the need for the international community to urge Israel to fulfil its international obligations and agreements in regards to the occupation; he argued that food aid alone will not solve the problems facing Palestinians.
Robert noted that in light of the on-going deterioration of the economic and social situation within Gaza there is an urgent need for the international community to address the various restrictions on goods and movement. These restrictions and associated lack of access to markets and employment prevents development and poverty alleviation in Gaza.
An audience member asked about the root causes of the situation and whether or not progress can be gained through addressing those issues.
· Rushanara highlighted that the causes are complex and there are competing narratives in Israel, Palestine and the international community. In terms of the effects of the blockade, she argued that the responsibility does lie with the Israeli government in lifting the restrictions. She recognised that Israel has concerns about security, but argued that the need for security has often led to disproportionate action which has affected civilians and undermined peace efforts.
Another question addressed the belief that a third intifada has started in the Palestinian territories and the West Bank.
· Ahmed responded by stating that the intifada is on-going but there are signs and symptoms that a third intifada is in fact developing and conditions within the West Bank indicate that a third intifada has already begun.
One question discussed the possible actions taken by the international community if Israel continues with the settlements expansion.
· Rushanara began by stating though many governments have expressed discontent over settlement expansion, very little action has taken place. She attributed this to the failure of the international community in applying pressure to stop the expansion due to inadequate checks on Israel. She then stated that if the Labour Party were in power they would collaborate with European allies to ensure that there is a strong voice from Europe angle, and would work in accordance with the United States and other governments to apply the maximum pressure on Israeli authorities to resume negotiations.
Another question addressed issues of counter-terrorism legislation and the impacts of such legislation on humanitarian action.
· Sarah stated that the classification of Hamas as a terrorist organisation by international governments creates an issue in aid delivery as she believes counter-terror legislation means that aid provision must be conducted without engaging with Hamas. The NRC has responded by working with organisations like UNRWA, the Palestinian Bar Association, law student, civil society and other actors.
· Simone followed up by stating that there has been a great deal of confusion amongst and within organisations on what the legislation means for their programming. She further noted that there should be more consideration for these issues when planning for reconstruction as it may be difficult to carry out urban planning without liaising with national authorities.
The final questions were on possible coordination or cooperation on humanitarian issues between Fatah and Hamas and what this could mean for Gaza and the possibility of Israel lifting the siege.
· Robert responded by stating that the issue in Gaza is not the delivery of humanitarian assistance but why humanitarian assistance has to be delivered - which is due to poverty and unemployment as a result of the blockade. He does not foresee that coordination between Fatah and Hamas would lead to the lifting of the blockade.
· Sam further addressed this point by stating that a poll conducted by BBC Arabic found that there is not much interest within Israel on issues in Gaza. Robert stated that Palestine is a secondary or tertiary issue in Israel, and Sarah noted that public opinion polls highlight that security is the main issue in regards to the Palestine-Israel conflict.