Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

What Looms Ahead for the Forgotten Heroes of Gaza?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

What Looms Ahead for the Forgotten Heroes of Gaza?

Article excerpt

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) USA invited representatives from other Washington, DC-based non-profit organizations working in the Middle East to a March 19 roundtable discussion with UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl. He provided a sobering update on the unmet critical needs of Palestinian refugees in Gaza six months after the end of Israel's 2014 assault on the besieged enclave. Krähenbühl described the obstacles to reconstruction, the slow pace of donor contributions, and what this portends for the near future in Gaza.

Geneva-born Krähenbühl is accustomed to seeing the devastating consequences of armed conflicts. Before coming to UNRWA in April 2014, he worked for 12 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), directing its response to fighting in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria and other war-torn hot spots. Krähenbühl earned a reputation for breaking with ICRC's traditionally discreet diplomacy, and speaking publicly about wars' heavy toll on civilians.

Krähenbühl noted that when UNRWA was formed in 1949, it was tasked with aiding more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees displaced the previous year. Today UNRWA?provides assistance-including education, health care, camp infrastructure and improvement, and protection-to more than five million refugees: almost a quasi-state, with the population of Norway or Singapore. In Gaza alone, UNRWA?is responsible for 1.26 million refugees, running 8 refugee camps, educating 240,000 students and operating 21 health centers, funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. member states.

Krähenbühl was on his way to Gaza to re-open Khuza'a Elementary Co-ed A&B school in eastern Khan Younis, one of 83 schools damaged during last summer's bombardment. Thanks to international donors, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai-who contributed her entire World's Children's Prize award of $50,000-students finally were able to return to their repaired classrooms in mid-March.

Krähenbühl explained that it was impossible to adequately describe what happened last summer in Gaza, the physical destruction and destroyed neighborhoods. No matter how good the photographer, he said, no picture can capture the personal experiences of war. How do you express the trauma of someone whose family lives next door to an apartment bombed in Israel's seven-week attack on Gaza-the man who told him he'd spent every day "wondering if the next bomb is for me"?

Sadly, we communicate in numbers. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2,200 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 490 children and 253 women. Another 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, including 3,000 children. Horrifying as they are, these numbers do not count the human cost of war. "We cannot accept anonymity in death and injury," Krähenbühl emphasized. "We're talking about families like our own with the same expectations of life. Palestinians are not statistics. How do we convey what happened in Gaza and is still going on in Syria?"

This is not a natural disaster, Krähenbühl added, and it occurred after eight years of a blockade imposed by Israel, which has resulted in an average unemployment rate of 44.1 percent for refugees in Gaza in 2014.

Turning briefly to Syria, Krähenbühl said that of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees living there, 80,000 to 100,00 leftthe country and more than 50 percent are displaced within Syria. UNRWA?recently resumed aid distribution in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. "To see people queuing up for food hurts very much," Krähenbühl said. Pregnant women fainting, hungry children. These are people who were forced from their villages in Palestine in 1948. Now they've had to flee from their apartments and abandon the businesses they built up over the years.

Palestinians have been waiting for a lasting resolution for more than 60 years. …

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