The opening of the school year in Gaza this week was the most harrowing in living memory. Hundreds of psychologists were on hand at all 252 UNRWA schools to lead a week of counseling for 241,000 students. We began with a roll call to see who was alive or dead.
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Five hundred children were killed in the conflict, an average of ten a day. There was nowhere safe for children to run, nowhere safe to hide. Many died inside their homes. The UN could not provide safe sanctuary. 65 UNRWA schools were hit directly or indirectly, some while housing the displaced. Children died as they slept next to their parents on the floors of UN classrooms.
Almost every child in Gaza has a sibling, a parent, some family member or a friend who was killed, injured or maimed for life, often before their eyes. Of the three thousand children wounded, we estimate that one thousand will have physical disabilities for the rest of their lives. Every child over six in Gaza has lived through three such wars. The UN estimates that 375,000 children are deep in trauma.
Behind these statistics are real lives each with a dignity and a destiny that must be nurtured and respected. Allow me to tell you about one of them – the nephew of my colleague, Kamal. A missile struck the house where he lived with his extended family. Four of his brother’s children were severely injured as they slept. Kamal’s eight-year-old nephew was wounded by shrapnel to the face. He was taken to hospital unconscious. The child awoke from his coma blind. We found a hospital in Amman to take the boy. But his mother was denied passage out and eventually his aunt accompanied the sightless boy from Gaza. Ten days later, his father was in the mosque about to pray. It was hit. The child found himself both sightless and fatherless.
The children of Gaza have bleak horizons. About 60,000 houses were damaged of which 20,000 are uninhabitable. Even before the current violence 71,000 homes needed repair or rebuilding. The public infrastructure on which they depend has been eroded by years of blockade with water, sewage and electricity systems decimated further by the latest violence. The neighborhoods where the children of Gaza once played lie in ruins, their recreational spaces littered with unexploded Israeli ordnance, which must be cleared before recovery can begin in earnest. The majority of Gaza’s 110,000 homeless people are children.
UNRWA stands ready to play its role in rebuilding Gaza. We have a two year plan and though we’d rather be asking our donors to fund the $56 million deficit in our regular programs for such things as educating half a million children in states and territories around Israel, we will rise to the challenges of reconstruction. But we cannot rebuild Gaza with our hands tied behind our backs. The only way to get our education program back on its feet, the only way to give back to children a belief in a peaceful and dignified future, is to lift the blockade. News of an agreement to reconstruct Gaza is welcome, as under present arrangements, Gaza will not be rebuilt.
The collective punishment of 54 per cent of Gaza under 18, children living under a blockade since 2007, must end. It is illegal under international law. Children cannot be deprived of a future on the pretext that militants placed rockets in UN schools - which UNRWA exposed and condemned. They cannot be deprived of a decent education because militants fired rockets from areas near their schools or indeed because militants built tunnels. Let that be the subject of investigations along with wider issues about the conduct of hostilities. Let there be transparency and accountability. Responsibility for breaches of international law must be established.
Meanwhile, let us take the politics out of education. Let us put children first, recognizing that the futures of all children in this region are inextricably linked. Let us give the next generation in Gaza and southern Israel the dignity of living free from fear. Other freedoms must also be restored particularly to Gaza; freedom to export, freedom of movement, freedom of access. Failure to do so will risk another round of violence.
At a time of rising extremism in the Middle East, is it really in the interests of Israel to deprive the next generation in Gaza of a future? The clear answer is no. Israel has legitimate security concerns. UNRWA has demonstrated that it can import building materials into Gaza while respecting those concerns. There is no evidence that any of our construction materials have been stolen, despite the misinformation.
Let us move ahead with rebuilding Gaza on the clear understanding that steps will be taken by all sides to avoid another round of violence. It is time to escape the familiar pattern of blockade, rockets and destruction. The children of Gaza and southern Israel deserve better.
Chris Gunness is Spokesman and Director of Advocacy and Strategic Communications at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.