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Lives in ruins
Jessica Barry

Gaza, Rafah camp, 13 January 2002. Palestinian houses demolished by the Israeli defence forces.

During the most recent intifada in the Palestinian occupied and autonomous territories, Israeli defence forces destroyed homes and other buildings in search of suspected terrorists. The ICRC is providing assistance to Palestinians who lost their homes and are struggling to rebuild.

The men took turns speaking. Sitting in a circle inside the yellow-lined canvas tent sheltering families made homeless by the previous night's incursion into the Palestinian refugee camp, Rafah, each one told of panic as the bulldozers demolished their homes. "Everyone rushed outside when the Israeli army vehicles approached without warning," commented 41-year-old Atef Al Naijar. "The children ran from door to door to wake up people who were still sleeping."

Another young man spoke of seeing a bulldozer smash through a neighbour's kitchen wall, as he rushed to rescue a 13-year-old girl trapped inside. The child's grandmother, sitting beside him on a plastic chair, shrouded in black and still obviously shocked by the previous night's events, gave vent to her woes. "We have lost everything," she cried, arms outstretched. "We simply fled without taking anything. My grandchildren have no schoolbooks and clothes, and we don't have any cooking pans."

Emergency supplies

In such situations it is obvious that people need immediate, practical help. Since March 2001, when house demolitions intensified, the ICRC has been running a programme to provide affected families with emergency supplies. To date, thousands of people living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have received tents, blankets, household goods and hygiene items.

For Palestinians living in the West Bank and in Gaza, the destruction of their homes does not simply mean the loss of a roof over their heads, but also a sometimes precarious dependency on the good will of neighbours, or on long-term support from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which is responsible for the camps, as well as ad hoc assistance from the authorities, aid agencies and foreign benefactors.

"We won't have any expenditures for six months," explained one woman who is living in prepaid rented accommodation after having lost her house during the April incursion into Jenin. "After that we are expected to move back into our homes in the camp, which should have been repaired by then. But three months have already passed, and the repair work hasn't started yet. We are worried about what will happen if it isn't finished when the time comes."

People who are accommodating homeless relatives are also in a quandary. The burden of hosting tens of extra people for an indefinite period, even if they are close family members, risks stretching people's budgets beyond the limit, at a time of mass unemployment, and increasing poverty throughout the Palestinian territories.

 

It was not only private homes that were destroyed during the recent West Bank incursions, but also commercial buildings and artisans' workshops in several places, including Nablus, where soap making is a local tradition. The destruction of several soap factories in the heart of the town removed one of the few remaining sources of employment for a local community of 150,000 people, already reeling economically from the prohibition on Palestinians working in Israel, which came into force soon after the latest intifada began.

Equally difficult is the psychological effect of losing home and possessions. Some people, however, are trying to look beyond the immediate misery and take a philosophical stance, if only for the sake of their children.

Fayzieh Mohammad, 40 years, is one of them. She fled with her six children to a friend's house when her own home was demolished during the April incursion in Jenin. Today, she spends long hours sitting with her 82-year-old father on his whitewashed terrace on the heights above the camp, from where there is a panoramic view of the destruction below.

From such a vantage point it is easy to see the flattened area. It is staked out with black and yellow flags that flutter over huge banners painted with portraits of the men who died during the fighting. Fayzieh, despite her serene expression, is worried about her 16-year-old daughter. The girl is greatly distressed by what happened, and now finds it hard to concentrate at school. "When we had to leave the house my daughter was crying," she comments. "I told her that it didn't matter about losing our possessions. I was hoping to comfort her by trying not to show her how much I cared. And I wanted to reassure her that, even if peace seems far away now, everything will be all right in the end."

In action

The steady deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Israel and the occupied and autonomous territories, led the ICRC to launch new programmes and to step up ongoing ones to protect and assist civilians. Some 100 expatriate and 170 national staff are currently working to implement these programmes, whose underlying goal remains protection, namely ensuring the faithful application of and respect for international humanitarian law, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Recent initiatives include the distribution of ICRC vouchers to 20,000 families in West Bank towns under frequent closure or curfew that can be exchanged against basic items in selected shops, and a bulk-food distribution programme for 30,000 families living in closed villages in the West Bank and, on an ad hoc basis, the Gaza Strip.

Ongoing programmes consist of house destruction relief assistance that provides basic household items up to 7,000 people on the West Bank and in Gaza who lost their homes due to the violence, and food-parcel distribution to 2,000 families in Hebron old city.

The ICRC underpins the Palestine Red Crescent Society's emergency medical service and is increasing its support for the Magen David Adom in various areas (blood bank, tracing, dissemination).

 
 

The bare minimum

Hassan Abdel Da'em, aged 53, has 18 children, eight of them twins. On a recent afternoon, they excitedly jostled and pushed as he pointed each one out to his visitors. At moments, it seemed, even he was at a loss to remember names and ages and to tell which tiny, blond, blue-eyed twin was which. His youngsters giggled and called out each others' names.

Early in July, Hassan and his large family fled their three-roomed house near Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. The surrounding area was becoming increasingly dangerous with nightly shooting that scared the children. Little by little the orchards surrounding their property were cut down and the land expropriated by the Israel army, leaving the family feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being too poor to rent another place to live, they took refuge in a relative's garage some two kilometres away down a twisting, sandy lane.

The family, already dirt-poor by anyone's standards, was now even worse off. They salvaged what they could of their few possessions - three mattresses, some straw sleeping mats, cooking pots, a few chairs and their clothes. Hassan also took his treasured, two-year-old photo of the children, and hung it on the wall of his family's new residence - the only decoration in that grey, cheerless place.

The garage may have been bleak, but the children brought it alive. "You could almost field two football teams," one of his visitors remarked jokingly, as their father tried to assert his authority by telling his kids firmly to be quiet, a plea that brought forth peals of laughter and more noise.

Although not a typical case for assistance under the ICRC's house destruction relief programme, the Da'em family nevertheless merited help. Not only was it large but also poverty-stricken. Hassan lost his job in Israel at the start of the latest intifada, and Israeli army bulldozers razed his few orange trees - his only other source of income - some months later. Their one significant possession, an old car, was crushed flat by a tank. Last but not least, there was little chance that the family would ever be able to live again safely in their home.

Within a week of moving out, the ICRC provided the family with two large tents, 40 blankets, boxes containing hygiene items, household utensils, coffee cups, gas lamps and jerrycans.

The bevy of children helped to carry the items from the Land Cruiser into the bare, cement-floored garage, in a corner of which the three single mattresses laid out on thin green and yellow mats were the only furniture apart from the chairs. The blankets were soon stacked beside the mattresses, with the boxes placed nearby. Hassan's wife made tea in eight small glasses, which were washed and re-used until everyone had been served. Now at least, once the boxes were unpacked, there would be enough coffee cups and tea glasses to go around.

Jessica Barry
Jessica Barry is ICRC commnication delegate in Gaza.

In the next issue, Red Cross, Red Crescent will publish an article on the Israeli victims of the conflict and the humanitarian response.


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