“Most people we saw had been seeing the wars since the one of 2008; they have been mostly seeing damage and living under siege for close to 15 years; and they have almost all said they saw hell when they spoke of the recent round of hostilities.” This was how Tamara Al-Rifai, United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) spokesperson and acting director of external relations, summed up the state of affairs for the people of Gaza, who she had met for a few days shortly after a ceasefire was announced on 20 May after 11 days of aggressive hostilities that killed close to 250 people, a third of which were women and children, and caused otherwise overwhelming damage to entire Strip.
Al-Rifai had arrived in Gaza with a mission headed by the UNRWA’s commissioner-general to examine the situation on the ground, decide an emergency plan, and lend support to Gaza-based UNRWA staff that had to deal with a situation that left close to 70,000 people without shelter except some UNRWA operated schools and tens of thousands more in desperate need of basic daily assistance.
“What we saw there was simply devastating damage; people were overwhelmed with devastation; the infrastructure was devastated, and the very basic means of living were devastated,” Al-Rifai said in a telephone interview at the very end of her visit.
For Al-Rifai, there is certainly a daunting rebuilding task for the Gaza Strip that has never actually seen the reconstruction of the buildings and services that were hit during the subsequent previous wars of 2008/2009, 2012, and 2014. “Every single war had inflicted a huge amount of destruction on services as basic as clean water, power plants, desalination plants and more,” she explained.
The situation is certainly very challenging, she argued, especially for her organisation, whose mandate is much wider than providing emergency services. The UNRWA in plain words just provides basic and essential services, including education and health care. Today, she explained, in addition to the fact that many of these schools and health centers, including the one that used to provide COVID-19 tests, have been hit hard, some are already acting as temporary shelter for those who were forced into homelessness of an unknown period of time.
The UNRWA’s annual budget is around $800 million. It has to be raised on a regular basis. It is already such a tight budget to attend to the services that this UN agency has to provide for over five million refugees all over Gaza, the West Bank, along with refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
“It is a very small amount for services, which we make sure are quality services, for millions of refugees who get a sense of safety and sustainability into their lives that are extremely volatile,” Al-Rifai said.
“This amount is almost always $200 million short.”
Meanwhile, Al-Rifai reminded, the recent crisis happened at a time where many of the refugees who were in Syria had to be displaced again, as they were forced into moving out into camps in either Lebanon or Jordan.
She added that the UNRWA had already appealed for an emergency budget of $38 million to be able to cope with the current situation in Gaza that came against a backdrop of a severe economic situation as a result of an extended siege that had effectively rendered 60 percent of the strip’s labour force almost jobless.
“The trouble is that the span of world attention might actually get to be rather short in a few days or a few weeks after the end of hostilities,” Al-Rifai said.
Moreover, she added, the very issue of rebuilding is shrouded with a lot of political complexities that relate to many consequential problems, including the question of how to rebuild and how to do this in a way that avoid possible clashes among the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the donors.
Then, she added, there is also the concern about securing enough funds to cover the reconstruction of the damage. “This is not something that has happened before, unfortunately”.
Al-Rifai’s most pressing question, however, is that of attending to the heavily challenged psychological wellbeing of people whose lives are constantly subject to such devastating challenges.
There is, she stressed, the huge moral damage that the Palestinians living in Gaza, who had mostly seen four consecutive wars in the span of 15 years. “This is not a small [amount of] damage and it is not at all a small task to attend to,” Al-Rifai reminded.
“We could fund raise for emergency humanitarian assistance, but I am not sure about how to address the profound problems of social and mental health; these are not considered part of the reconstruction despite the fact that it is this part that bears the largest brunt of the damage,” Al-Rifai said. She added that the time has come for a more holistic approach.