During the fifty days of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Israel bombed and shelled the Gaza Strip, causing massive damage to civilian infrastructure and homes. About 18,000 residential units were either completely destroyed or heavily damaged, leaving more than 100,000 Palestinians – some 17,000 families – homeless. The destruction was caused by Israel’s unlawful open-fire policy, which included bombardment of civilians and civilian structures from the air, land and sea. According to the military’s own figures, as reported in the media, the scale of shelling during the operation was unprecedented: 35,000 artillery shells of different types and 14,500 tank shells, not including air raids. Artillery is known as a “statistic weapon” because it is intrinsically inaccurate and can land anywhere within a range of dozens of meters. Using artillery in a crowded urban environment inevitably causes destruction on a large scale.
After the shelling ended, families who had lost their homes received financial aid from international organizations, chiefly UNRWA. Some families rented apartments and others moved in with relatives or into pre-fabs.
Today, more than four years later, about 20% of the homes are still unusable and some 2,300 families – about 13,000 people – remain homeless. Some 1,600 of these families had been receiving rent subsidies from UNRWA at rates ranging from 200 to 250 USD per month, depending on the size of the family. In July 2018, however, following US funding cuts, UNRWA was forced to halt financial assistance, leaving families out in the cold. Families that are still renting are having trouble making payments.
Israel has abdicated any responsibility for the outcomes of its military actions during Operation Protective Edge and has avoided paying any sort of price for them. On the criminal plane – the Israeli military’s law enforcement system has mobilized, as always, to create the false appearance that it is investigating “exceptional” cases. The lawfulness of the open-fire policy itself, however, is never investigated. On the civil plane – Israel has legislated for its own exemption from civil liability for its actions. As such, Israel has disavowed any responsibility for the horror and destruction it wreaked upon Gaza. To add insult to injury, some voices in Israel have glorified the damage and even demanded a harsher approach. Meanwhile, thousands of Gazans continue to pay the price.
Below are testimonies given by some of these families to B'Tselem field researchers Olfat al-Kurd and Khaled al-’Azayzeh over the course of December 2018 and January 2019:
The Abu Jalalah family, six members, Jabalya Refugee Camp:
Mahasen and Sa’id Abu Jalalah lived with their five children in the a-Nada Tower in northern Beit Hanoun. In July 2014, Israel bombed the tower and the family moved in with Mahasen’s relatives in Jabalya R.C. On 30 July 2014, Sa’id moved into an UNRWA school as the relatives’ home was crowded. That day, the military bombed the school, killing 19 people, including Sa’id. Since then, the fatherless family has been renting living quarters in Jabalya R.C .
In a testimony she gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 17 December 2019, Mahasen Abu Jalalah, 41, described her family’s situation:
When I found out my husband had been killed, I went into shock. I didn’t expect such a tragedy to befall us. We thought the UNRWA schools would be safe from the bombings. I lost both my husband and my home in this war. I became a widow and homeless all at once. My children and I have moved from one rented house to another. My husband, who was an administrative worker in the Palestinian Authority, was the family’s sole provider. Now we live off a 2,000 ILS (~547 USD) benefit we get from the Welfare Ministry.
I started looking for a home for us after the war. My 17-year-old daughter Israa has cerebral palsy and is bedridden. We need basic living conditions to care for her. Everything we owned was destroyed, and I had to buy it all again, including furniture and clothes. We’ve gone through five rentals since then. None of them was really decent. For the first year, I paid the rent from my savings. Then we started receiving rental subsidies from UNRWA – 625 USD once every three months. The benefit and these subsidies were hardly enough to cover rent and our basic expenses.
My sons, Ahmad and Shadi, are at university and I can’t pay for their expenses. Israa needs care and special food, which I can hardly get. Our situation has gotten worse since July 2018, because UNRWA stopped the rent subsidy. I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent now. The landlord keeps demanding the money, and I keep asking him to wait until UNRWA gives us the aid. When I asked at UNRWA why they’d stopped the financial aid, they said they were in a serious financial crisis. The landlord could evict me and the children at any moment. I don’t know what we’re going to do. We won’t be able to live in an UNRWA school because of Israa’s condition. I just keep hoping they’ll rebuild the a-Nada towers and we can go back there.
The Abu Hajar family, six members, Beit Hanoun:
The Abu Hajar family lived in a tin-roofed home in Beit Hanoun. Israel destroyed their home during the operation and the family took shleter at an UNRWA school in Jabalya R.C., where they remained until September 2014. The family then moved to another UNRWA school near Beit Lahiya, where they lived for two months. They then began receiving rent subsidies from UNRWA and moved into a rental apartment.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Khaled al-’Azayzeh on 13 January 2019, Bilal Abu Hajar described the ordeal his family has been through:
I work at a mosque in Beit Hanoun. I clean and tidy up, and make 520 NIS (~142 USD) a month. Our house was destroyed by a missile or a shell, just as we were getting ready to flee the area. Somehow, we weren’t hurt. I was shocked that we lost our house within seconds. We escaped to an UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya and stayed there for two months. Then we started getting a 225 USD subsidy from UNRWA and rented a 40 square-meter apartment, which cost 400 NIS a month. It was very small, and the crowding was really difficult for us. It also had a tin roof and we suffered a lot from the heat. In the summer, I had to remove a tin sheet from the ceiling to get some air ciruclation in the house. Two months later, we moved to a bigger place in the same area, 80-square-meters, also tin-roofed. Conditions there were slightly better.
We stayed there for two years and then moved to another house. It also had a tin roof, but at least it was near our house that got destroyed, and closer to the children’s school. It’s bigger but in the winter, the rain gets in and it’s very cold. Now we’re in trouble, because we haven’t received the rent subsidies from UNRWA since July 2018. They stopped giving us the payments. The landlord has been asking for the rent ever since, and I have no way of paying him. My salary is barely enough to live on.
I don’t now what we’ll do and what will happen to us.
The al-Hamlawi family, seven members, Beit Lahiya:
Hiyam and 'Abd al-Karim al-Hamlawi also lived with their five children in the a-Nada towers north of Beit Hanoun until Operation Protective Edge. While the fighting was still underway, they moved to the same UNRWA school that was bombed by the military in the attack that left 19 dead, including Sa’id Abu Jalalah .
In a testimony she gave B'Tselem field-researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 11 December 2018, Hiyam al-Hamlawi, 45, said:
During the war, my husband, 'Abd al-Karim, was wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder and neck when the military bombed the school. My son was also wounded by shrapnel in the legs. Today, my husband is unemployed, because there is no work in Gaza, and our only income is a 1,500 NIS (~410 USD) benefit from the Welfare Ministry. After the war ended, I went back to the a-Nada towers to see what was left of our apartment. I was shocked to see the building demolished.
We’ve moved five times since the war. At first, right after the war, we went to live with relatives for about a month. Then we rented an apartment at our own expense, and two months later UNRWA started giving us 225 USD a month for rent. We rented an apartment in Beit Lahiya and lived there for about eight months, but it was crowded. Then we moved from one apartment to the next, and we couldn’t really make it. About two months ago, the landlord of the apartment we were living at in Jabalya R.C. evicted us because we hadn’t paid rent in several months. We couldn’t pay, because UNRWA hasn’t been giving the aid since July. We’re renting a new apartment in Beit Lahiya now, but I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. The landlord keeps asking when we’re going to pay, and I avoid him.
We had our own apartment and because of the war, we became homeless and have had to move from place to place. Now they’re threatening to evict us again, and I don’t know where we’ll go. Maybe we’ll go back to the UNRWA school. Maybe we’ll put up a tent near our destroyed house. Because of our financial circumstances, we can’t afford a rental without the aid.
‘Alaa al-Kafarneh at the entrance to the makeshift metal structure his family erected on the ruins of their home. Photo by Khaled al-’Azayzeh
The al-Kafarneh family, four members, 'Izbat Beit Hanoun:
Until Operation Protective Edge, the al-Kafarneh family lived in a tin-roofed home in 'Izbat Beit Hanoun. During the fighting, the family fled to the UNRWA school at Jabalya R.C. When they went back to retrieve their belongings during a ceasefire, they discovered their home had been completely destroyed. After the war, the family spent about nine months at an UNRWA school, and then began receiving aid from UNRWA and rented an apartment.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Khaled al-’Azayzeh on 13 January 2019, ‘Alaa al-Kafarneh, 44, related his family’s ordeal:
When they bombed the area during the war, we fled. We stayed at the UNRWA school in Jabalya R.C. until the end of the war. While it was still going on, I went back to our house during one of the ceasefires and discovered it had been completely destroyed. I was in shock. There was nothing left of it. All our furniture and belongings were ruined. The school we lived in was very crowded, and there was no privacy. My wife and daughters were in one of the classrooms most of the time, and I slept in the yard with the men.
After the war, we moved to another UNRWA school, near Beit Lahiya, and we stayed there for about nine months. Then UNRWA started giving us rent subsidies, 225 USD a month. We were supposed to receive the aid until new houses would be built to replace the ones that were destroyed. We rented a house at the entrance to Beit Lahiya and paid 700 NIS (~191 USD) a month. About three months later, we moved to a different place inside Beit Lahiya, because the house was far away and there was no transportation, but the conditions weren’t good. We moved again, to a house in 'Izbat Beit Hanoun that was at least close to our original home and to the children’s schools. We lived there until July 2018, and then UNRWA stopped the aid payments, and we couldn’t pay the rent. I work for the security forces and get half pay – 750 NIS a month. It’s barely enough to live on.
We had to go live on top of the wreckage of our old home. I poured a concerete floor and built a structure made of tin sheets. Now we really suffer from the cold, and the rain comes in. We have no way of heating water and bring water for bathing from my sister’s house nearby. We have no furniture. We only have a straw mat on the floor and we put mattresses on top of it for beds. The cold penetrates through them. The tin walls don’t really provide privacy, either.
The Sihweil family, six members, Beit Hanoun:
Until Operation Protective Edge, the Sihweil family lived in a house in Beit Hanoun. During the war, the family moved to an UNRWA school in Jabalya R.C., where they remained for about forty days. While they were there, Israel bombed their home, which was completely destroyed.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 9 January 2019, Rizeq Sihweil, 44, said:
Before the intifada, I worked in Israel. I’ve been unemployed ever since, and our only income is a 1,800 NIS (~492 USD) benefit from the Welfare Ministry that comes in every three or four months. When we were living at the UNRWA school, I went back to check on our house during one of the ceasefires and saw it had been bombed and destroyed completely. It broke my heart. When I went back to the school and told my wife and children, they started crying. We didn’t take anything with us when we left, and everything we had was buried under the rubble.
After the war, we rented an apartment near our house. For three months, I paid the rent myself, and then we started getting rent subsidies from UNRWA, 225 USD a month, which we got in a batch every three months. This went on until June 2018, when we got money from UNRWA for the last time. Two weeks ago, the landlord told us we hadn’t paid the rent for six months and evicted us. I owe him 1,000 USD. The benefit I get isn’t enough for rent and living expenses.
After he evicted us, we went back to live on top of the wreckage of our old home. I put up tin sheets and tarps, because there are no walls and no roof. The rain gets in and the children suffer from the cold. We’re constantly moving the children and the furniture around to keep them from getting wet. Our youngest son, Hamadah, who is ten, shivers at night from the cold. We’re living without basic conditions in a house that’s not fit for human habitation. We suffer every day. We’re in a bad mental state. We’re thinking about moving back to the UNRWA school.
The al-Kafarneh family, eight members, Beit Hanoun:
The family lived in a rental home in Beit Hanoun until Operation Protective Edge. Over the course of the war, the family found shelter at the UNRWA school in Jabalya R.C., and while staying there, a neighbor told them their home had been shelled.
In a testimony he gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 13 January 2019, Majdi al-Kafarneh, 34, said:
When we left our home, I didn’t think it would get demolished completely. We took nothing with us, except for ID cards and a few things for the kids. It never ocurred to me that the war would last so long and that we would become homeless. It was too crowded inside the UNRWA school classrooms, so I pitched a tent in the school yard. Life in the tent was difficult, and conditions were very poor.
We stayed there for about nine months after the war. There were thousands of people there, and the conditions were difficult. The crowding in the bathrooms was unbearable and there wasn’t enough water. Then we started receiving 675 USD from UNRWA once every three months, so we rented an apartmennt that had two rooms with a bathroom and a kitchen. We paid 300 NIS (~82 USD) a month in rent and lived there for a year.
After that we rented another apartment, closer to the kids’ school in Beit Hanoun, to make it easier for them. The apartment is below street level and it’s very dark, but we got used to it.
In the last six months, UNRWA stopped giving us rent subsidies. This is a huge problem. We can’t pay the landlord, who constantly asks for the rent. I’m always stressed. I’ve incurred so much debt, because I’ve been unemployed since the war and have no other source of income. The landlord asked me for an undertaking that as soon as UNRWA pays me, I’ll give him all the money and cover the entire debt. I’m worried he’ll ask us to vacate the apartment. If that happens, I won’t be able to rent another one, because the landlords know UNRWA no longer supports people whose homes have been shelled. We may have no choice but to go back to live in the UNRWA school, and suffer the same difficult conditions we had during the war, until we find another solution.