Occupied Palestine: How the living became martyrs in UNRWA schools

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United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrives at Abu Hussein United Nations school at the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on October 14, 2014. (Photo: APA Images-Mohammed Asad)

By: Ola al-Tamimi

Published Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“These schools are for education, they are not houses... The UNRWA incurs huge losses every time because the refugees ruin the schools’ furniture.” Perhaps the statement issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesperson in Gaza during the last war was a bit hasty and ill-advised. These “saboteurs” as they were called have become victims in the schools, along with the broken furniture. Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon came to stand by the ruins of Gaza 50 days after the end of the war.

Ramallah – In the last Israeli war on Gaza, the role of the UNRWA was a double-edged sword which was clearly reflected in the speeches of its officials and its press statements that contributed to turning refugees into a group of people that ought to be managed. It created a new understanding of Palestinian refugees by classifying them under the category of people who do not have the right to self-defense.

A long time ago, modern democracies – in what is known as the age of citizenship – created a group called refugees. A group of people that does not have the right to have rights. Work was done to depoliticize this group (why are they here? And why can’t they go home?). Especially when it comes to Palestinian refugees, humanitarian organizations adopt a mechanism that makes them similar to entities with sovereignty and authority, such as the Israeli occupation authorities and Arab host states, stripping refugees of any political significance.

Just like the Israeli authorities transformed Palestinians from a people with historical significance and a role in society to something that can be controlled, so, too, did the UNRWA. This agency deals with Palestinian refugees everywhere as though they are a group that can be managed through a set of programs centered around humanitarian and relief work.

'Let us through to help civilians in Syria'

As such, the UNRWA relies on its policy of using imagery as a means of communication that excludes and hides certain facts and effective actors in the event it is portraying while focusing on one side only. It is in this sense that one can view the image that the UNRWA used in its campaign, “Let us through to help civilians in Syria.” The agency can come up with a similar one for its campaigns calling for relief work and reconstruction of Gaza after the war.

The goal of the campaign, as the organizers claim, was to remind world public opinion of the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria and the different circumstances that civilians face there. It also sought to generate 23 million tweets and to be circulated on social networking sites.

“It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. Through your support of the campaign, the horrifying image which shows thousands of residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp waiting for aid will appear on the electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square, not far from the United Nations Headquarters, sending a powerful message from humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Syria to the global diplomatic community that the continued suffering of the Yarmouk residents is unacceptable. We will then photograph the image on the Times Square billboard and tweet it out to the millions who followed us in the campaign.”

In the description accompanying the campaign and the picture there is no mention of the Palestinians or their suffering in the Yarmouk refugee camp, which represents another Nakba and a propagation of the first Nakba. Although the picture conveys the suffering experienced by the people, it overlooks daily developments and other elements surrounding the picture such as resistance for example.

That is why humanitarian organizations use pictures, because they serve as an effective tool in raising awareness and raising money, as though you are selling people’s pain and suffering. They also reinforce the stereotype of the helpless person from the Global South who is in constant and desperate need for help that they can only get from Western humanitarian organizations.

Press statements also play a role in the media policy that the UNRWA adopted vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees.

An example of this is the statements that were published during the last Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. Before the period between July 17 and 22, the UNRWA issued from its offices in Jerusalem and Gaza press statements about the presence of rockets in its schools. It said that “in the course of the regular inspection of its premises, UNRWA discovered rockets hidden in a vacant school in the Gaza Strip. As soon as the rockets were discovered, UNRWA staff were withdrawn from the premises, and therefore we are unable to confirm the precise number of rockets.”

The statement also said “The school is situated between two other UNRWA schools that currently each accommodate 1,500 internally displaced persons,” adding: “UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.” The statement also pointed out that: “The agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”

These statements raise a number of questions. For example, the UNRWA did not specify which relevant parties it informed of the presence of rockets. It could be the Palestinian government in Gaza or the one in Ramallah or perhaps the occupation authorities in Tel Aviv. It also did not mention the number of rockets discovered on July 22 while it specified in the statement it issued on July 17 from the Jerusalem office the number of rockets discovered (20 rockets).

In addition, it did not mention in which schools it found the rockets. This makes all the UNRWA schools, which housed refugees, a legitimate target for the occupying Israeli forces under the pretext that there are rockets in these schools. In other words, these statements put the lives of more than 160,000 refugees within the range of Israeli bombs and missiles.

Sure enough, hours after issuing the second statement on July 22, Israeli forces bombed al-Maghazi’s girls school in al-Maghazi refugee camp where more than 300 internally displaced people sought refuge. In a statement issued after the bombing, the UNRWA said: “UNRWA’s Maghazi Preparatory Girls School, in the Maghazi refugee camp ... was struck by explosive ordnance believed to have been fired by Israeli forces.” The last sentence indicates that the agency is not sure about the identity of the perpetrators which makes the statement ambiguous and open to interpretation. It could be interpreted as exonerating the Israeli forces of the blood of martyrs and suggesting indirectly that the Palestinian Resistance might be bombing people. The scene comes full circle when the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, issued a statement on July 24 in which he condemns the presence of rockets inside the schools before knowing the results of the investigation launched by the agency.

On the day of Ban’s statement, and in Beit Hanoun specifically, the remains of children were scattered everywhere in an UNRWA school sheltering refugees that was targeted by Israeli forces. Five shells were fired at the school that day from tanks deployed along the eastern border of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip killing 20 and injuring more than 200, most of them women, children and the elderly. Another school was targeted in Rafah in southern Gaza in broad daylight. The worst massacre took place in Abu Hussein School in the Jabalya refugee camp in the north killing and injuring dozens even after the agency said that it gave the school’s coordinates to the Israelis more than 17 times so they won’t hit it. Yesterday Ban came to visit Gaza and to express his sorrow and pain upon seeing with his own eyes the devastation of the Israeli war and of the UNRWA statement.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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