Palestinian childhood in Gaza’s crowded school shelters

May 10, 2024
A girl rides a makeshift swing in the yard of a school run by UNRWA at the Shati camp for Palestinian refugees, west of Gaza City, on May 7, 2024. (Photo: AFP)

Ramallah, May 10, 2024—Around one million Palestinians, half of whom are children, are living in formal or informal shelters in the Gaza Strip after Israeli forces displaced them from their homes.

Defense for Children International - Palestine visited the Al-Daraj School shelter in Gaza City to assess living conditions and interview adults and the children living there.

In response to Israeli military operations over the past years, schools operated by UNRWA in Gaza have served as shelter centers for displaced civilians. However, the current massive military offensive against Gaza that has amounted to a genocidal campaign has created unprecedented conditions of inhabitability. 

Since October 7, 2023, schools across Gaza have been repurposed into shelters, managed by the Government Emergency Committee following UNRWA's withdrawal. These centers, of which there are more than 50 in Gaza City alone, face critical shortages of essentials like food, water, and sanitation. The Committee's role is primarily administrative, lacking resources for regular provision of necessities. 

Displaced Palestinian families struggle with extreme poverty compounded by insufficient hygiene facilities. Limited access to clean water, worsened by fuel shortages due to Israeli restrictions, has led to the spread of diseases. Drinkable water is scarce, forcing many people to drink non-potable water, further aggravating health risks in the overcrowded shelters.

8-year-old Ritaj lives in a school shelter with her aunt after surviving an Israeli airstrike that killed her family and forced doctors to amputate her leg.

Daily life in Al-Daraj School 

The Al-Daraj School shelter in Gaza City, located east of the city, is one of the largest shelters in the area. Currently accommodating around 3,600 Palestinians from 460 families, the shelter houses around 1,700 children, including at least 15 children with disabilities and a young girl with cancer. 

Many children and their families living at the shelter are separated from other family members. "I wish I could see my family in the south. My siblings, aunts, and father are there. I miss them all, and I wish I could go home,” 13-year-old Janat A. told DCIP.

The shelter's facilities, comprising 69 classrooms and 19 tents in the corridors and courtyard, are overcrowded, with an average of six to nine families, or about 30 to 50 individuals, occupying each room. The overcrowding has prompted families to devise improvised sleeping arrangements, with women and children typically sharing rooms while men sleep in the corridors or courtyard. However, bedding is scarce, as most displaced Palestinians were unable to bring mattresses and blankets from their homes, many of which were damaged or destroyed by Israeli bombardment. 

Al-Daraj school shelters around 3,600 Palestinians, half of whom are children. (Photo: DCIP)

"I want to go to a clean bathroom. I struggle with cleanliness here,” 17-year-old Atef Q. told DCIP.

With only four bathrooms, the demand far exceeds the available facilities, leading to long, never-ending queues. The absence of designated cleaning staff leaves the bathrooms in unsanitary conditions, compelling residents to seek alternative locations for gathering water and maintaining personal hygiene, such as the homes of relatives or nearby facilities like Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital.

"Water comes in for half an hour, so I cannot fill the jugs. Sometimes I go to the Baptist Hospital to fill the water jugs, but I feel exhausted from carrying them around. I wish we would all eat the same as each other. I eat, but I know that some people cannot find anything to eat. I want them all to eat," said Mohammad H., 15.

One of the most alarming issues is the deteriorating sewage network within Al-Daraj School. Stagnant pools of sewage attract disease-carrying insects, heightening the risk of illness among the displaced population.

Standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects that spread disease. (Photo: DCIP)

The absence of proper cooking facilities forces families to resort to improvised methods, such as cooking inside rooms or corridors using wood fires. 

"I am tired of carrying water. I am tired of the smoke when I start a fire with my mother," said Yasmin Q., 16.

Cooking gas is inaccessible due to restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities, and reliance on wood for cooking and heating water leads to frequent fires. The smoke aggravates respiratory issues, particularly among children, while the use of plastic materials for ignition poses additional health threats.

Health challenges in Al-Daraj School

"Many diseases have spread among children in the shelter centers, such as dehydration, and there are no rehydration salts to solve this problem,” said Dr. Mohammad Ibrahim Zabar, an internal medicine physician volunteering in multiple shelters. “We also have problems related to vitamin deficiency. In light of the widespread malnutrition, many children suffer from vitamin deficiency, but we have nothing to offer them. Hepatitis has also spread horribly among these children as a result of the accumulation of sewage water and lack of hygiene in the place.”

There are no sewage management or sanitation services available at Al-Daraj school. (Photo: DCIP)

"There are many skin diseases that spread here,” Dr. Zabar said. “Mosquitoes and some strange insects have appeared due to the accumulation of sewage water and garbage. Children here also suffer from diarrhea, intestinal infections, and anemia, and we have no treatment to offer, in addition to the spread of scabies and lice among girls as a result of lack of water and lack of bathing. More than once we stood helpless in front of diabetic children, as there is no medication to offer them and they do not receive the necessary doses of insulin. In addition, if insulin is available, it needs to be stored in a refrigerator, and of course, there are no refrigerators operating due to the fuel shortage.”

"The shelter center was directly targeted on December 16, when an artillery shell hit the fourth floor, resulting in numerous casualties, including dozens of civilians and children,” Abdulqader Al-Moubayed, director of Al-Daraj School, told DCIP. “Additionally, the adjacent UNRWA clinic building was targeted multiple times during the conflict. One such attack occurred on December 4, followed by another on January 16, resulting in the tragic loss of around 15 lives, including five children."

The targeting of shelters, such as the Al-Daraj School shelter center, by Israeli forces during the military assault in Gaza underscores a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law and the safety of Palestinian civilians. Despite being designated as schools and places of refuge for civilians, shelters have repeatedly been directly targeted by Israeli strikes. 

The deliberate targeting of school shelters in Gaza constitutes a grave breach of international humanitarian law, as enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. This Convention prohibits attacks on civilian objects, including schools used to shelter civilians during armed conflict. Such actions also contravene the principle of distinction, which requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilian and military targets. Moreover, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers the intentional targeting of civilians or civilian objects as war crimes, punishable under international law. 

News | Right to a Childhood
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