Ramallah, May 21, 2021— Around 66,000 of some 91,000 internally displaced Palestinians have been sheltering in 58 UNRWA schools across the Gaza Strip, seeking safety in the midst of Israeli military bombardments or after airstrikes destroyed their homes, according to the latest UN figures.
Despite a ceasefire taking effect early this morning, May 21, and a halt to the bombardment, many families are unable to return home for the foreseeable future. Some 258 buildings across the Gaza Strip have been destroyed, including 1,042 housing units, while an additional 769 housing units have been rendered uninhabitable, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported.
There has been a noticeable absence of an organized humanitarian response for these internally displaced persons (IDPs), who have been sheltering without blankets, adequate food and water, or hygiene supplies in crowded contexts that could cause the rapid spread of COVID-19, sources told Defense for Children International - Palestine.
Many of the IDPs whose homes were targeted or otherwise destroyed by Israeli artillery shells were residents of Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, including the neighborhoods Al-Attarta, Al-Siafa and Al-Salateen as well as Umm An-Naser village (also known as Al-Qaraya Al-Badawiya). In addition, a large number of IDPs came from areas bordering Israel such as Beit Hanoun, as well as high-rise residential towers in Gaza City.
Bilal H., 12, described the evening of May 13, which was also Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, as "terrifying." Given that his family’s home in Umm An-Naser village had only a sheet metal roof, the boy's parents initially sought shelter in his grandparents' concrete house. However, the family soon heard shells striking nearby buildings.
"We did not have a car or donkey cart, so we fled on foot at night. It was so dark because the electricity was cut off. Israeli planes were buzzing in the sky, and artillery shells were landing near us," Bilal told DCIP.
The family took shelter in the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahayan school, an UNRWA-run school located in Beit Lahia’s Mashrou' neighborhood. There, the family found difficult and crowded conditions. According to Bilal, families sheltering in the school have only two hours of electricity a day, little food, and no access to water.
"We have not seen anyone from UNRWA, even though we are here at their school. It has been more than five days,” Bilal said.
Fareed al-Abraq, director of the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahayan School Shelter Center, confirmed in an interview that around 1,200 families, or more than 5,000 individuals—approximately half of whom are children—are currently sheltering in the school. Like Bilal, the majority were displaced from Umm An-Naser village on May 13, when that area came under heavy Israeli military strikes.
The shelling led to many casualties, including two children: 17-year-old Fawziya Nasser Mohammad Abu Faris and her nine-month-old nephew, Mohammad Salameh Mohammad Abu Dayyeh.
Al-Abraq told DCIP that many took refuge in the school because it is UN-run, which they hoped would provide them safety. He added that many Palestinians also sheltered in the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahayan School during Israel's military assault on Gaza in July - August 2014, under a Red Cross and UNRWA coordinated effort. At the height of the 2014 hostilities, OCHA reported that 500,000 Palestinians were internally displaced.
In contrast to the coordinated humanitarian response that took place during hostilities in 2014, al-Abraq told DCIP that IDPs who contacted the Red Cross did not receive a response. He further stated that UNRWA has not provided any formal assistance as of yet, and the school is in urgent need of food, bedding, medical and hygiene supplies, water for drinking and bathing, electricity, as well as trained staff to care for the sick and elderly.
Since hostilities escalated on May 10, UNRWA continuously called on all parties to the conflict to enable access to the Gaza Strip. On May 18, UNRWA and other aid organizations called for the creation of "humanitarian corridors" to allow essential materials such as fuel and other emergency relief to reach those in need.
UNRWA further stressed that "under international humanitarian and human rights law, parties to a conflict are under an obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to the civilian population, and to respect and protect their right to essential levels of human rights such as food, primary health care, and basic shelter and housing."