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Abandoned in Gaza?

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The publication of HPG's new report Sanctuary in the city: urban displacement and vulnerability in the Gaza Strip coincides with the immediate aftermath of the Israeli military operation Pillar of Defence. The operation saw 450 homes destroyed or severely damaged; nearly 3,000 people are still displaced and living with host families.

When the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, many humanitarians expected that displacement would diminish. This has been far from the case. Israel has expanded its 'buffer' zones along the border and military operations have continued. In 2008 Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged an estimated 58,400 homes and displaced 120,000 Palestinians. Meanwhile, the election of Hamas in 2006 prompted an Israeli and Egyptian blockade and caused major donors to implement a policy of diplomatic isolation.

Such measures have had a drastic impact on the lives and livelihoods of people in Gaza. Joblessness is common, public services are deteriorating and the physical environment is becoming increasingly degraded. GDP in the Gaza Strip in 2011 was lower than in 1994. High rates of unemployment mean that there is an attrition of skills and the population is becoming increasingly dependent on aid.

Poor Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed or damaged have few options but to wait for reconstruction housing built by the state or international actors such as the UN. While building materials enter the Strip through Hamas-sanctioned 'black market' tunnels, the UN and international NGOs are prevented from buying them by the isolationist policies of donors. This means that they must rely solely on coordinating imports of construction material with the Israeli authorities, which is time-consuming and costly. As a result, many Palestinians have spent years in limbo on UN-funded rental assistance. While rents have risen sharply in the last few years, these subsidies have not.

Large families are accommodated in small living spaces, whether in rental accommodation or hosted by relatives. As poverty in Gaza deepens, these overcrowded rooms are becoming pressure cookers of domestic stress and anxiety.

Palestinians who are displaced in Gaza can expect very little help from the three political actors with a role in preventing and addressing displacement. Although most international legal opinion maintains that the law of occupation imposes on Israel a number of duties to protect civilians and property in Gaza, Israel does not recognise these responsibilities. Since it lost control of the territory to Hamas in 2007, the Palestinian Authority retains very little capacity to influence policy on displacement in Gaza.

Lastly, this research suggests that Hamas's support for the displaced is uneven, and often determined by political affiliation and wealth. (Hamas has also been undertaking forced evictions of people living on state-owned land, often without adequate concern for due process, consultation or compensation.) There is therefore huge pressure on the informal support of kin and local organisations, and international assistance assumes a large role in addressing both emergency and long-term needs.

The degree to which international organisations can work with the Hamas government to develop more constructive policies and stronger institutions is limited by the so-called 'no-contact' policies imposed by donor governments. The pitch is also queered by the ambiguous applicability of anti-terror legislation, under which organisations might incur criminal liability for humanitarian or development programmes that are deemed to 'materially benefit' the Hamas government.

After events such as Pillar of Defence the humanitarian community provides a good emergency response in Gaza, under difficult conditions. On an ongoing basis the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides basic services to approximately 70% of the population who are registered as refugees, and in times of crisis provides (relatively) safe haven and assistance to the population at large. But many agencies, especially large providers like UNRWA, are questioning how they can keep up with growing humanitarian needs in a formerly self-sufficient population, especially in a world with less appetite for either the financial cost of addressing the consequences of the conflict or the political price of tackling its root causes.

*'Displacement and vulnerability in Gaza' is the latest publication in a series of studies into urban displacement under the title Sanctuary in the City? Simone Haysom [2009] did an MPhil in Environment, Society and Development at the University of Cambridge and is a research officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute. Picture credit: Journalist Mohsen and Creative Commons.