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UNRWA’s ‘unsung heroes’ still delivering in Gaza

An UNRWA school sheltering displaced families in Gaza has received a direct hit.
© UNRWA/Mohammed Hinnawi
An UNRWA school sheltering displaced families in Gaza has received a direct hit.

UNRWA’s ‘unsung heroes’ still delivering in Gaza

Humanitarian Aid

Amid airstrikes and a complete siege of the Gaza Strip, staff from the UN agency that supports Palestine refugees, UNRWA, continue their lifesaving work, even in the face of immense personal losses.

UNRWA was established more than 70 years ago, and its services include education, healthcare, camp infrastructure and social safety net assistance to Palestine refugees across the Middle East.

This includes around two million people in Gaza, where UNRWA schools are now housing roughly 170,000 residents who have fled their homes in the wake of the escalating crisis sparked by Hamas attacks against Israel last Saturday.

The UN agency is also a casualty of the conflict. Four staff have been killed and some 14 facilities have sustained damage. Many personnel are also sheltering in its schools.

UN News spoke to Juliette Touma, UNRWA Director of Communications, who is based in Amman, Jordan.

She described her 13,000 colleagues  – who include doctors, nurses, teachers and sanitation workers - as “unsung heroes” who "have been on the ground providing services to people in need". 

Ms. Touma began by outlining how the conflict has impacted UNRWA to date. 

 The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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Juliette Touma: We have at least 14 UN facilities that have sustained damage due to the airstrikes that have been taking place since the morning of 7 October. Our headquarters received collateral damage this morning due to heavy airstrikes in the neighbourhoods nearby. It happened while some of our staff were taking cover in the same compound in another building next door, and very luckily, we did not record any casualties. Another UN facility, a school sheltering the displaced, was directly hit a few days ago.

Overall, we are hosting some 170,000 people in over 80 schools and other facilities across the Gaza Strip. These are families who have fled the shelling and the bombardment, and they have sought refuge in UN facilities and premises.

UN News: You mentioned that one of the schools where people are sheltering was directly hit. Were there any casualties?  

Juliette Touma: Luckily, we did not have casualties when that school was hit, although it sheltered 250 people.

Sadly, since 7 October, we have lost four UNWRA staff who work with us in different parts of the Gaza Strip. I'm in touch with our colleagues on the ground every day, sometimes more than once a day. They are telling us how terrified they are and that they were forced – many, many of them - to leave their homes in search of safety. Some have sought refuge in UN buildings and schools. Many have lost loved ones, relatives, neighbours. Some colleagues have lost their houses.

We have a very big number of staff working with UNWRA in the Gaza Strip. We are the largest UN agency, with 13,000 staff. These are doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, sanitation workers, drivers, logisticians. These are really the core of our operation, the largest that the UN runs on the ground in the Gaza Strip and the oldest. These are our unsung heroes.

Despite everything many, many of them have been on the ground providing services to people in need because we have 1.8 million Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip. Many of them rely on UNWRA assistance. 

UN News: Are staff able to reach where they need to be to provide these services? How are they able to move around the Gaza Strip? 

Juliette Touma: Since 7 October, UNWRA was forced to decrease its operations on the ground in the Gaza Strip. For example, we had to close down our food distribution centres. We have 14 distribution centres and we had to close them down due to everything that's been happening. Our schools have been closed and that's impacting the education of at least 300,000 Palestine refugee children in the Gaza Strip.

Many (staff) have actually been able to work. Some of the health colleagues are working. We have people who are responding to the needs of the people in the shelters. They're giving them mattresses, a place to sleep, clean water, some food, in cooperation with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). People are working.  Some are collecting facts and figures, some are collecting stories, some are giving us information on the level of the destruction. We have staff who continue to work as much as possible. However, we have had to reduce our operations.

Families gather at UNRWA’s New Gaza Boys’ School, seeking shelter from heavy airstrikes.
© UNRWA/Mohammed Hinnawi
Families gather at UNRWA’s New Gaza Boys’ School, seeking shelter from heavy airstrikes.

UN News: Have you been in contact with the Israeli authorities to guarantee that incidents that happened to UNRWA facilities are not repeated? Do you have any guarantees from them for the safety of your staff and your facilities? 

Juliette Touma: The UN facilities and any UN premises should be, by law, protected at all times, including during times of conflict. This is something that we've been very clear about in this conflict, and in other conflicts, and in conflicts around the region. Parties to the conflict must always protect UN premises, schools as well. And in this particular case, it was a school that belongs to the UN. So, there is double protection, if you wish.

UN News: How is the complete siege of the Gaza Strip declared by the Israeli authorities affecting your operations?

Juliette Touma: The whole of the Gaza Strip has been under a blockade for 16 years now, which meant that already the situation was pretty dire. Two-thirds of people are poor, 1.2 million people rely on UNWRA assistance, UNWRA food assistance. Electricity was very short in supply and the same with water. And people could not get in and out of the Gaza Strip freely. Movement restrictions were there before the 7 October for the past 16 years.

For us, we have not been able to get in any humanitarian supplies since 7 October - not just us at UNRWA but the whole UN family working in the Gaza Strip. We cannot get UN personnel in and we cannot get people who work with us out. So, the Gaza Strip is sealed off completely for humanitarian assistance and personnel.  

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UN News: So, how are people eating? Your distribution centres are closed, the borders are closed, the crossings are closed. How are people able to survive in this situation right now?

Juliette Touma: For now, some of the shops continue to be open and there are supplies in the Gaza Strip. We are following very closely the situation of the stocks and it is just a matter of a couple of weeks when basic stocks, basic supplies and also fuel, are going to run out in the Gaza Strip. 

UN News: Do you have any information on the Rafah crossing with Egypt? Have you noticed any movement of people and goods between Egypt and Gaza? 

Juliette Touma: Normally the Rafah border crossing, which is in the far south of the Gaza Strip at the border with Egypt, is used by people in Gaza to leave the Gaza Strip. It involves paying a lot of money and doing a lot of coordination, so not everybody was able to afford doing that to leave through Egypt and to go to the world. I know from some colleagues that they were not able to use it a couple of days ago, but until now, I don't have all the information about that crossing point.

UN News: Do you have any message to the parties, anything that you would like to add?

Juliette Touma: The United Nations is calling on all parties to end the fighting everywhere and to spare further unnecessary loss of civilians. I think people have suffered for way too much for way too long. For many people in the Gaza Strip, this is the seventh time that they're going through a conflict.  

For many of our staff members who have been through thick and thin in Gaza, they say this is by far the worst. They are worried and they are fearful for themselves, for their children, for their loved ones; for what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day.  

Uncertainty, fear, sorrow, grief. It is time for all of this to come to an end for the sake of everyone.