Lives in ruins
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
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
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."
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,
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 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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