Calls for funding to stem Gaza humanitarian crisis

Approximately $4bn in aid is needed to rebuild Gaza, following the latest Israeli offensive

A vast humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Gaza, with 50,000 displaced people taking refuge in UNRWA shelters following the latest Israeli offensive against the territory, a UNRWA spokesman said.

The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, has been under an Israeli land, air and sea blockade since 2007. During the recent 50-day war, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, predominantly civilians, and almost half a million displaced.

Approximately $4bn in aid is needed to rebuild the area, according to Palestinian estimates.

Close to “80,000 homes (were) damaged or completely destroyed, of which 20,000 are totally uninhabitable, which can count to a homelessness crisis,” said Christopher Gunness, spokesperson and director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications at UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the near east.

“Beyond the physical there is the psychological impact; thousands of children are deep in trauma, parents are in shock and grief. Of the 3,000 children injured during the crisis, 1,000 will have lifelong disabilities,” said Gunness. “Over 500 children were killed so family life for tens of thousands of people is in crisis.”

The UN estimates that Israel fired 80,000 missiles on Gaza during the war, with 10 per cent – or the equivalent of 8,000 – remaining unexploded, according to Gunness.

“So the playground in which children will play, the neighbourhoods to which people will return are uninhabitable environments,” he said. “Other than that, people are just terrified.”

One of the agency’s top priorities at the moment is to move the 50,000 people from UNRWA shelters into homes. This will only be possible when they have habitable homes, many of which are linked to sewage and electricity grids that have been completely destroyed, Gunness added.

The agency is relying on donor support and would require $680m to build 1,400 homes in Gaza in two years to house the homeless. The plan would enable thousands to leave the 19 schools currently being used as collective shelters, give a “huge shot in the arm for the Gaza economy and will mop up a great deal of unemployment”, said Gunness.

However, reconstruction efforts face challenges with Israel restricting the entry of construction materials into the strip. “The blockade must be lifted and fundamental freedoms restored to Gaza. Without that, I fear a return to the shockingly familiar pattern of blockade, rockets and massive destruction,” said Gunness.

In terms of funding needs, Gunness said the response to UNRWA’s emergency appeal issued during the Gaza fighting was generally positive. While the agency has been able to obtain about $200m to date out of $295m requested, it still needs funds for emergency assistance, especially for food and shelter.

According to Gunness, Arab nations responded particularly well to its funding appeal, with the UAE and its arm of the Red Crescent pledging $40.8m for both short and long-term use and Dubai sending 24 plane-loads of food and medical items. Bahrain sent two plane-loads in addition to $5.5m for reconstruction and $200,000 for emergency support. Saudi Arabia, through the Saudi Fund for Development, approved using $6.5m of previously pledged funds for the repair of shelters damaged during the war. Jordan helped facilitate donations through the Hashemite Charity Organisation.

UNRWA is now preparing for the Cairo donors’ conference on Gaza on 12 October, pinning high hopes on donations from Arab states. The agency’s part of the overall reconstruction plan of the Palestinian Authority amounts to $1.1bn, however, it is also requesting close to $500m more for longer term development – mainly camp infrastructure and a tidal barrier off Beach Camp, said Gunness.

“Will construction materials be allowed in? We are hopeful that they will be. We sense a new realism in the air, a realisation that it is the interest of all concerned to allow Gaza to breathe and to improve economically,” he said. “Right now, however, the priority is still to cope with the immediate aftermath of the conflict. About 50,000 homeless people still occupy the collective shelters, needing feeding as well as basic facilities like beds and washing facilities. We need cash donations to operate the centres, provide the food and enable some families to move out to rented accommodation.”