Gaza: Displaced Palestinians forced to leave UNRWA schools

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Displaced Palestinian children from Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip gather on July 23, 2014 at a UN school in the refugee camp of Jabalia where families fleeing heavy fighting in the besieged Palestinian territory have taken refuge. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Abed)

By: Ahmed Hadi

Published Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) displaced Gazan refugees again when it asked them to leave its schools serving as shelters in al-Maghazi refugee camp to a nearby camp after informing them that their lives were at risk. The UNRWA has condemned the targeting of one of its schools by Israeli forces.

Gaza – Without prior notice, 50-something-year-old Ashraf Radwan was forced to evacuate with his family from the UNRWA’s al-Maghazi Preparatory Girls School, located in Deir al-Balah governorate in the central Gaza Strip. They had taken refuge in the school that became a shelter for residents of the area whose homes were demolished as a result of Israel’s aerial bombardment and limited land incursion along the border area.

Radwan and his family were displaced yet again as they left the school in a hurry to the sound of falling bombs. They walked on foot west towards al-Nusairat refugee camp after they were notified by the UNRWA of the need to evacuate the school without providing them with protection from the bombing. Radwan arrived at al-Nusairat about two hours before evening prayers. His mother, an elderly woman in her 80s, was moving very slowly and leaning against walls from time to time because she could not walk as fast as the others.

The residents of al-Maghazi refugee camp faced the dilemma of hiding from the barrage of rockets and shells while the UNRWA’s decision for evacuating them from the school was based on the fact that remaining there put their lives at risk. Some people started calling local radio stations, appealing for help to at least secure their exit.

The refugees found no excuse for pushing them out of the school doubling as shelter because they know of the level of coordination between the UNRWA, the Red Cross and the Israeli military. A number of them told Al-Akhbar that they were evacuated from four schools, two were intermediate schools and two were elementary schools. Right after their evacuation, the Israeli military targeted the first two schools directly.

Om Mohammed al-Nahawi, one of the women who left her home in the east of the camp, said she spent one night inside al-Maghazi school. The next day, two UNRWA employees told the 1,600 refugees that they must evacuate the school right away because the international agency cannot be held responsible if the lives of any of them were to be endangered.

Nahawi, who lives today in one of her relatives’ homes in al-Nusairat camp, said they learned from those staying in the shelter that the UNRWA coordinated with the Israeli side to avoid targeting the school where people sought shelter in order to protect their lives. They were shocked, however, when they were kicked out suddenly and without prior warning.

The woman in her 40s told Al-Akhbar: “The UN staff told us that our lives are in danger and we have to leave right away. We were shell-shocked because we were in the street again and did not know where to go.”

The UNRWA spokesperson in Gaza, Adnan Abu Hasna, said he has no accurate information about this issue but added: “I think the reason people were told to leave is because their lives were in danger.”

He surmised that al-Maghazi school’s proximity to the shelling might be “the reason for evacuating the people.” He recalled a similar story that happened at a school in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza and “the people living in it were in danger.”

Abu Hasna reiterated that currently, “there is no safe place in Gaza.” He said the UNRWA has about 72 buildings that have been damaged as a result of the Israeli assault. Nevertheless, he did not deny the ongoing coordination between them and the Israeli side and the fact that they notified the Israelis of the coordinates of the schools where civilians are taking shelter, which “number about 68 schools.”

Abu Hasna pointed out that 130,000 people sought shelter in UNRWA schools in different areas to escape the shelling.

He said, however: “These schools are for education, they are not houses... The UNRWA incurs huge losses every time because the refugees ruin the schools’ furniture.”

Heading north towards the Jabalya refugee camp, other crises emerge in the lives of refugees there. More than 400 families live in Jabalya’s Intermediate Boys School A.

These families had fled the bombing in Um al-Nasr village and do not have enough clothes or blankets. Abu Ahmad Alian is one of those people. He told Al-Akhbar that he sent his wife at night to the school’s neighbors looking for blankets for their children, stressing that they are living in tragic circumstances as they lack life’s basic necessities inside the the schools.

Alian also said that they suffer from a lack of drinking water and food and are currently dependent on philanthropists to provide them with food and water as the school’s water supply ran out.

Abu Hasna promised to provide blankets for the refugees within 24 hours, stressing that Dubai International Humanitarian City donated blankets, and efforts are being made to bring them in through Jordan “after the UNRWA’s supply of blankets ran out.”

He reissued his call to provide $120 million to support the agency in order to “continue supporting the refugees and providing relief to people displaced by the war.”

The strangest thing about UNRWA’s position is that if Israel is keen on protecting the lives of civilians living in UNRWA’s shelters and Israeli information that they were going to shell schools prompted the UNRWA to ask displaced Gazans to leave its schools, as happened in al-Maghazi school, then how did Israel, in its first war on Gaza in 2009, kill 43 Palestinians living in al-Fakhoora shelter in northern Gaza and burn three others with white phosphorous in Beit Lahiya school? Where was the coordination then?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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