Worry and longing: refugees in the gaza strip

Worry and longing: refugees in the gaza strip

Rukaja al-hissi sits on her bed like a queen. The 79-year-old wears a leopard print headscarf, a green wool blanket over her legs, and the beads of a prayer chain glide through her fingers.

"We never expected to be away from jaffa for all these years," says palastinian woman at her home in gaza refugee camp. Their grandson osama adds: "this is only a temporary home, sooner or later we will go back to jaffa."He has never been to the arab-populated district of the israeli coastal city of tel aviv.

Rukaja fled with her family from jaffa to gaza, some 80 kilometers to the south, in 1948, when she was ten years old. More than 700.000 palastinians were displaced during the first middle east war between israel and its neighboring arab countries. Many came to the gaza strip, which at the time came under agyptian control and is now ruled by the radical islamic hamas.

In order to help the refugees, the united nations founded the palastinian relief and works agency (UNRWA). In the meantime, this supports about five million palastinians: among others in jordan, lebanon and the palastinian areas. Major donor so far: the USA. In 2017, they spent the equivalent of about 291 million euros.

But U.S. President donald trump has now massively cut aid – until the palastinians are ready for peace talks with israel again. After the U.S. Recognized jerusalem as israel’s capital in december, the palestinians broke off contact with the americans as mediators in the conflict. Palastinians want east jerusalem as capital for independent state of palastina.

For UNRWA, the cuts are a bitter blow. "So far we have been told 60 million dollars (about 49 million euros), so in that sense I assume we are short 300 million dollars (244 million euros)," says UNRWA director general pierre krahenbuhl. "This is a very dramatic cut that will have a very real impact."

The almost one million refugees in the gaza strip, who are being supplied with food by the aid organization, are also particularly affected by this. "Given the financial crisis, UNRWA may not be able to continue with its emergency food distribution," says asem abu shavish, head of social programs in the gaza strip. This will certainly lead to more hunger in poor families, who are completely dependent on the aid.

"If UNRWA stops food aid, we won’t find money to buy food," al-hissi also says. "This is the end."Every three months the family collects its package of rice, flour, oil, powdered milk, sardines and lentils. None of al-hissi’s children and none of her grandchildren has a permanent job. Nearly one in two people in the coastal region is out of work, according to the world bank.

Al-hissi lives with one of her four sons, his wife and their three children. Family sleeps on mattresses in one room. In the other two rooms, the floor is wet, parts of the ceiling have fallen down. "When it rains, this room turns into a swimming pool," al-hissi also says about the bedroom. The wall behind her has a crack that is several meters long.

For years, the roughly two million residents in the coastal region have suffered from massive power outages. "I’m waiting for electricity to cook lunch," says the old woman, looking at a pot of beans next to her bed. Currently, people have an average of about six hours of electricity a day.

The situation in the gaza strip has deteriorated massively over the past decade or so. In 2007, the radical islamic hamas seized power in the coastal region. Israel then imposed a blockade on the gaza strip, which is now supported by egypt. Exit and entry are strictly controlled, as are the import and export of goods. Hamas and israel have fought three wars since then.

"In the year 2000, we actually had only 80.000 people on our food distribution list," says krahenbuhl. "This is clearly the effect of the blockade, which has naturally affected the different sectors of the economy."

But a dispute over control of the gaza strip between hamas and the more moderate palastinian government of president mahmud abbas also aggravates the situation. Abbas cut electricity payments to israel for the gaza strip last year. Israel subsequently cut its energy supplies.

In january, israel’s prime minister benjamin netanyahu called for the palastinian relief agency to be abolished. "UNRWA is an organization that perpetuates the problem of palastinian refugees; it also perpetuates the idea of a right of return with the goal of destroying the state of israel," netanyahu said. "This is why UNRWA must go."

Krahenbuhl rejects criticism. Not UNRWA perpetuates the problem of the refugees. "I think these are politicians who are not investing vigorously in a political solution to the situation," he says. UNRWA will exist as long as the conflict lasts.

Meanwhile, in her sparse room, al-hissi reminisces about the citrus tree plantations in jaffa that she visited with her father as a child. "I pray day and night for a better future for my children," says old woman. "First of all, let them find a good job and then a nice house – and continue to wait for us to go back to jaffa."