Gazans Begin Their Own Blockade – of UNRWA
|Friday, June 24,2011 02:00|
On Thursday I arrived at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warehouse at Rafah to find a protest camp blocking the gate. The Domestic Committee for Demolished Houses invited me into their tent, to tell me their story.
In 2001-2, during the Second Intafada, Israeli Defence Forces demolished thousands of houses along the Gaza-Egypt border, some of which had four or five families living in them, and there are currently still some 27,000 homeless.
For nine years, they have been forced to live in tents, on the ground, in warehouses, or in rented accommodation – whatever they can find. In the meantime most families have grown by an average of 30 people, while 15 have died waiting. One man later took me to see his his ‘home’ – two rooms in a warehouse where he and his 13-member family have been living for eight years. It is literally two rooms, with an outside squat toilet, the only source of running water. They have just been served with an eviction notice, and have nowhere to go. To add to their misery, the stress of the eviction caused him to have a stroke.
UNRWA is the agency that exists to provide rehousing, but some eight years later, most are still waiting. While UNRWA has built a couple of schools and a medical clinic in the wasteland set aside for the new settlement, no houses have been constructed in almost a decade.
Why the hold-up, I asked, to be met with a chorus of “There’s no good reason”, “UNRWA refuses to use domestic materials“, “UNRWA only wants to use material from Israel so that Israel benefits, but even then they can’t get them to let it through the crossings”, “UNDP has built many houses and accomplished their projects without needing Israeli permission”, “UNDP uses materials from the local market, and gets the job done”.
They were unanimous in condemning UNRWA’s refusal to use local labour and materials, and adamant that UNRWA is guilty of bad faith, but worse still, of mismanagement. “The whole project only needed 95,000 tons of stones, and UNRWA had the prearranged agreement with Israel and got 70,000 tons delivered – but instead of building the houses it was meant for, they sold it to other agencies for their projects, like the Arab Bank and UNDP. They sold it for 84 shekels a ton, and we have the evidence. If they’d had good intentions, they would have done something for us when they had the materials, instead of selling them,” their spokesman said.
After eight years of trying to get results, they ran out of patience, and have been protesting outside the UNRWA warehouse every day since 01 March this year. Since then they have had several sessions with UNRWA administration, the first on 07 March, when they were given an undertaking that the housing project would be continued by 01 May. When that never transpired, another meeting was held with the Deputy-Director, Sebastian Price, on 25 May. “He promised reconstruction would start by 16 June, today, but as usual, nothing has happened,” they complained.
“We want the west to know the suffering Israel is causing us. UNRWA is pro-Israel, not pro-Palestinian – they are supposed to look after our humanitarian rights and they have not done it. They are not really interested in solving the problem,” they added.
In desperation they have written a letter of complaint to Ban Ki-Moon and to the Human Rights Council about their situation, made even more unbearable by the unfairness that some people made homeless in Operation cast Lead two years ago have already been re-housed while they are still waiting almost a decade later. “It is a crime against humanity, preventing the provision of housing. We accuse Israel of crimes against humanity for preventing building materials getting through,” they said.
An old man angrily threatened, “Every organization with an UNRWA flag won’t be able to work until they fulfill our needs.”
It was no idle threat – protestors from Rafah and Khan Younis today, Saturday, forced the closure of several summer camps sponsored and supervised by UNRWA, saying the millions spent on ‘having fun’ would be better spent on housing.
Forget the Arab Spring – the Gaza summer has begun.
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2. Homeless for over eight years
Julie Webb-Pullman (click to view previous articles) is a New Zealand based freelance writer who has reported for Scoop since 2003. She recently managed to get into Gaza during a brief period when the Rafah Gate was open.