In the Eye of a Man-Made Storm
As residents of the Gaza Strip try to recover from the worst war in decades, the world -- and Israel -- must understand that the status quo is unsustainable.
When I was awoken by a call from our Gaza director at 6:20 in the morning on July 30, it was instantly clear the news wouldn’t be good. And it wasn’t. A U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school sheltering 3,000 displaced people from the raging conflict had just been hit by artillery fire, and many people were reported dead or injured. Children seeking refuge in classrooms had been killed in their sleep. It was an outrage, a disgrace.
The Israeli military operation that began on July 8 was the most extensive in Gaza in many years. The deaths, injuries, and destruction it caused will remain with us for years to come.
Having worked in conflict zones for 25 years, I have often been confronted with the deep polarization that characterizes such environments. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prime example: Everything related to the occupation of the Palestinian territory and the blockade of Gaza generates particularly high levels of passion and hostility. UNRWA has not been spared in the past, and it was not spared in the latest conflict. I will therefore address how we responded to this acute crisis and some of the questions and criticisms we have received.
At the heart of the situation in Gaza are people. At present, 1.8 million live in the Gaza Strip. In its urban areas, the population density is above 20,000 people per square kilometer — one of the highest in the world. Over 70 percent of Gaza’s residents are Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to leave their homes during the war of 1948. UNRWA’s activities in Gaza focus on providing education, health care, and social services to this community, which numbers approximately 1.2 million people, or emergency aid in times of war.
When I first visited Gaza as the newly appointed commissioner-general in April, I was immediately struck by the sheer unsustainability of the situation. The refugees and wider population of Gaza have no prospects, no jobs, nowhere to go, and no future. The territory suffers from over 40 percent unemployment, over 65 percent youth unemployment, and 80 percent female unemployment. I was also struck by the depleted and heavily contaminated aquifer in Gaza, which will — along with Gaza’s run-down health, water, electricity, and sewage systems — make the Strip unlivable in a matter of just a few years. The staggering increase of people on UNRWA’s food distribution lists is another serious concern: These lists have soared from 80,000 people in 2000 to nearly 830,000 people just before the war.
UNRWA is at times challenged by people who criticize us for allegedly keeping the refugee question alive and holding refugees in a state of dependency. While I believe it is important that any humanitarian or development agency regularly and critically reviews how it operates, these questions fail to address the core underlying issues that affect the population in Gaza.
It is not UNRWA that perpetuates the Palestinian refugee crisis, but the lack of a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere in the world, who wishes to remain a refugee — and this includes Palestinian refugees. The increase in the number of people dependent on UNRWA assistance is the direct consequence of the illegal land blockade imposed on Gaza since 2007.
Israel has significant security considerations and the right to take measures to protect its citizens from harm or attack. This does not include, however, what the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations have determined to be forms of collective punishment imposed on the population of Gaza.
During one of my first visits to Gaza, I talked to one refugee who described how he had gone in a few years from being a successful businessman who employed 50 people and traded with Israel and the West Bank to a man ashamed of having lost his business, his employees, his home, and his dignity. The blockade ended his possibilities to trade and sustain his family. Such stories abound in Gaza.
While I feel strongly that we must help people in such dire conditions, there is no pride in referring to the high numbers of people UNRWA assists. It is a measure of the denial of dignity and rights to the people of Gaza. It can be changed by lifting the blockade and ending the occupation.
With the situation for Gaza’s population already so bleak, the war has pushed the territory to the breaking point. While casualty figures in times of war are always contentious, the current U.N. estimates as of Sept. 21 put the number of deaths at 1,480 Palestinian civilians, including 504 children, and five civilians in Israel. Having been to Gaza four times since the beginning of the conflict, I have seen the destruction of entire neighborhoods and the broken bodies of children in the emergency wards of Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital. The ultimate denial of dignity would be to allow the dead and injured to remain anonymous: I invite all observers tempted to minimize the war’s impact on civilians to join me on my next visit to Gaza.
I do not minimize the impact of rocket firing by armed groups in Gaza, including Hamas, on Israeli cities. In fact, I have repeatedly stated — and not from the relative security of my home, but from Gaza itself at the height of the conflict — that the firing of such rockets, which the United Nations has condemned as indiscriminate, had to cease.
Yet, I find it very difficult to reconcile the destruction and death in Gaza with the notion that Israel took every possible measure to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law. Many of the victims of this latest conflict were due to the use of excessive and at times disproportionate force.
Another dramatic aspect of this conflict was — and still is — the high number of people displaced by the fighting. UNRWA sheltered nearly 300,000 Gaza residents in some 90 of its school buildings. In other words, we had to assist between 2,500 and 3,000 people per school — or over 80 people per classroom — for weeks on end. While we were very effective in distributing food, mattresses, blankets, and hygiene products, we struggled with improving the provision of water in the early stages of the conflict and containing the spread of disease.
The number of people displaced by this war was over six times more than during the conflict in Gaza that ended in January 2009. It was as if almost twice the entire population of my hometown of Geneva, Switzerland, was forced to flee their homes and live in shelters in the middle of an active war zone.
Our feeling of indignation reached its peak when UNRWA’s own facilities, where Gaza’s displaced citizens were seeking refuge, came under fire. On seven separate occasions, UNRWA schools that had been used as emergency shelters and whose exact positions we had provided to the Israeli army were either hit or struck nearby by Israeli shells or other munitions. Armed forces operating in combat zones — whether regular or irregular, state or nonstate — have the obligation to preserve civilian lives and civilian infrastructure. They also have the obligation under international law to respect the sanctity and inviolability of U.N. premises. These obligations were repeatedly violated during the war.
This is all the more serious because UNRWA improved the system of notification to the Israeli army about the location of its emergency shelters after similar incidents during the 2008-2009 war. The precise GPS coordinates of the Jabalia school, which took a direct hit on July 30, causing multiple deaths, was conveyed 17 times by email to the Israeli army. The Rafah school, where an Israeli strike on Aug. 3 hit just in front of the main entrance gate, killing and injuring civilians inside and outside the compound, had been similarly notified to the Israeli army on 33 separate occasions. We have unreservedly condemned these Israeli actions and have called for investigations and accountability for these attacks.
We further explicitly condemned the abuse by armed groups in Gaza of the sanctity of our premises when weapons were found in UNRWA schools. The world knows about this story because UNRWA found out about the incidents during its inspections and proactively informed all parties and the world through our public statements on the matter. While we do not know which Palestinian groups placed these weapons in the schools, we have said repeatedly that it was unacceptable and endangered staff, civilians, and the security of the premises themselves.
In this context, it is important to set the record straight on a couple of points. First, I categorically refute that UNRWA ever handed the weapons over to any group. Second, the weapons were found in empty schools, closed for the summer break, not in schools sheltering displaced people. That being said, the suggestion that UNRWA’s discovery of weapons in some of its schools provides an explanation for why other UNRWA schools housing civilians were shelled would fail basic scrutiny under international law, and is also morally unacceptable.
Many observers refer to the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian groups endanger civilians by operating in close proximity to homes and civilian installations, including UNRWA schools. We are currently exposed to a series of pictures released by official Israeli sources on their Twitter accounts trying to make that case. It is not disputed that the recent war took place in the heart of Gaza’s heavily urbanized environment and consequently exposed the civilian population. This would apply also to operations carried out by Israeli ground forces. But this fact does not release any of the armed forces from their obligations under international humanitarian law — rather, it should force them to take even greater measures of precaution.
Pictures are an inescapable part of modern war — but they can also be misleading. One particularly interesting photograph shows a square-shaped hole in the ground, which we all instantly take to be the entrance of a tunnel in Gaza. Beside that entrance we also see two bags marked with the UNRWA logo. These images were posted on official Israeli social media sites, and the narrative reinforced by subsequent briefings to journalists has suggested that UNRWA cement was being redirected away from humanitarian purposes. The fact that there is no such thing as an UNRWA cement bag, and that we have never brought a single such bag into Gaza, seems not to matter to those who relay the picture on social media.
Similarly, the Israeli army disseminated a story about three Israeli soldiers allegedly killed in a booby-trapped UNRWA clinic. As is often the case, there was less media exposure of the Israeli army’s unequivocal admission — which was communicated by the army to us by phone and in subsequent face-to-face meetings — that the incident had not in fact occurred at an UNRWA clinic. This is how much false mythology about UNRWA has taken root.
As the population of Gaza emerges from the devastation of this conflict, its needs are greater than ever. As many as 60,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed in this conflict, of which 20,000 are totally uninhabitable, rendering around 110,000 people effectively homeless. Even those with homes will find themselves in neighborhoods where the water, sewage, and electricity systems are demolished. In addition to food and other requirements, people will need materials to repair and rebuild. The United Nations estimates that 80,000 projectiles fell on Gaza, of which as many as 8,000 may have failed to explode. These will have to be cleared before recovery and reconstruction can take place in earnest. Beyond the physical destruction are also the mental scars — the multiple traumas to which Gaza’s population has been exposed for the third time in five years.
In this context, the big question hanging over Gaza is the conditions under which the reconstruction will take place. I welcome the recent agreement on a mechanism to import building materials into Gaza. But if it fails to be properly implemented and if the process of rebuilding homes does not begin very soon, the levels of despair and anger in the Strip will grow very rapidly.
Only trade and employment will allow Gaza’s inhabitants to rise from dispossession and dependency to self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Humanitarian aid alone, after all, cannot make up for the denial of rights and dignity. It doesn’t elsewhere in the world, and one should not expect it to do so in Gaza.
For Palestinians, this has become an existential matter. As the population emerges from the most severe conflict in decades, many have so little hope in the future that they are prepared for any eventuality — including taking the appalling risk of crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, which has already cost many their lives. Ultimately, the unsustainability and indignity of life in Gaza represents a major challenge for all, including Israel.
To date, no one has expressed this better than a Gaza businessman I met in June. "I am a good man," he said. "But my children are not as good as I am."
Seeing from the expression on my face that this needed some more explanation, he added: "I am almost 60; I have worked most of my life with Israelis, in their factories; I have traded with them. I think I can say that I know how they think and understand some of the things that worry them. But my children have no understanding of that, as they have never met an Israeli. They know only the barrier, the blockade, the tanks, the drones, and the fear. This is a major concern for any future coexistence."
After this latest conflict in Gaza, we have to move beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. The planned mechanism that will help rebuild Gaza under a consensus Palestinian government is an essential step in the right direction. However, more political action is required to solve the underlying causes of this crisis. While it is not UNRWA’s role to determine what those solutions should be, we do not accept that it is taken for granted that this dismal state of affairs will continue year after year, conflict after conflict. It is time to address the human cost of these repeated and avoidable tragedies — including the cost to our own colleagues, 11 of whom have been killed since July 8. It is time for a change of paradigm in Gaza, one that recognizes that the population of the Strip, and all Palestinians, have the same aspirations for freedom as any other people in the world.