Between 7 July and 26 August 2014, the Gaza Strip experienced the deadliest and most devastating round of hostilities since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967; two years on, most people and institutions are still struggling to cope with their immense losses, reports the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Besides the massive damage to the enclave’s infrastructure – including hospitals, water and electricity networks, and streets – some 12,500 housing units were totally destroyed and around 6,500 homes were severely damaged; over 19,000 housing units were rendered uninhabitable, states OCHA.
Osama al-Sirsawi grew up in Shujaiya in eastern Gaza City. Located near the perimeter fence with Israel, it was one of the most heavily shelled and destroyed areas of Gaza, and images of its severely damaged neighbourhoods flooded local and international news and shocked the world.
Yet Shujaiya is also where Osama went to school, where he got married, and where he lived together with his wife and their children until the summer 2014 conflict broke out and Osama’s home became one of thousands that was totally destroyed.
Luckily, shortly before the hit, he and his family managed to flee to an UNRWA school to seek shelter and safety together with hundreds of thousands of other persons across Gaza.
Half a million people – 28 per cent of Gaza’s population – were displaced due to the conflict, and even as hostilities subsided, over 18,000 families – 100,000 people – were unable to return as their homes had been heavily damaged or completely destroyed.
To this day, 65,000 persons remain displaced, states OCHA in its In the Spotlight report, published earlier this year; approximately 70 per cent of them are Palestine refugees.
Soon after the ceasefire, UNRWA provided Osama with financial support to move out of the UNRWA Collective Centre and rent a temporary home for his family.
“In Shujaiya, we lived in one house together with my brothers, uncles and aunts. When the house was destroyed, we were all scattered, forced to go and live in different places and neighbourhoods. Before, we always supported each other and helped each other out; now this has become impossible,” he explained.
For internally displaced persons, besides the destruction of their homes, the loss of social support networks and community relations is a key issue of concern, making the displacement even harder to cope with.
Due to severe damage to many neighbourhoods and the scarcity of rental space as a result of the high demand, many families were forced to move to new neighbourhoods; some extended families were divided and many support systems broke down.
For Osama and his family, it was impossible to find an affordable place to rent in Shujaiya, and ultimately they moved to a different neighbourhood in Gaza City. It was difficult for all of them to adapt to this new reality.
While they thought it would just be for a short period of time, they have been waiting for two years to reconstruct their family home.
“It was really not easy to move to a different neighbourhood; for the children, the main problem was that they could not go to their original school and see their friends anymore. We also don’t have money to pay for transport to go and visit regularly. This was very difficult for them – beside the loss of their home, they also lost their friends,” Osama explained.
A few months ago, Osama’s family received their first payment from UNRWA to start reconstructing their home. Yet, because they lived on the third floor of a multistorey family home, he needed to wait until his extended family members completed the first two floors to start the reconstruction works for his apartment.
Finally, however, he made progress, and now he will be able to finish all the works with the last UNRWA instalment: “I think in around three months we will be able to go home, finally,” Osama said.
“All we want, really, is to go home. I hope there will not be another conflict in the future. I don’t think I will be able to cope with seeing our home damaged again – not to mention how this would impact our children,” he added.
The UN Special Coordinator Office to the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) stated in a recent report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for development assistance to the Palestinian people that while significant progress has been made on the physical reconstruction of damaged energy and water facilities – repairs of almost all water, wastewater and energy networks and facilities that were damaged in 2014 have either been completed or are underway – the repair and reconstruction of uninhabitable homes has been slow and only really started in 2016 following preparatory work, including rubble removal, documentation, and establishment of land and property rights.
The first-place photo from the 2015 EU-UNRWA Photo Competition portrays the tragic situation of people in the Gaza Strip after the 2014 conflict. Abraham, a young child from a family of five, lives at Nada Towers in Beit Hanoun, which was bombed during the recent conflict. This photo was taken a few months after the hostilities and shows Abraham playing amid the rubble. © 2015 Photo by Hassan Hosni al-Jadi |UNRWA
Thirty per cent of these houses are now completed, while work is ongoing on another 30 percent.
According to UNSCO, reconstruction has been delayed due to import restrictions for construction materials as a result of the blockade, complex documentation requirements related to proving title to land, processing times to obtain building and municipal permits, and funding shortages: only 40 per cent of the US$ 3.5 billion pledged for Gaza’s reconstruction has been disbursed by donors as of mid-2016.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides assistance and protection for some 5 million registered Palestine refugees to help them achieve their full potential in human development.