Hamas, UNRWA, and the shelter issue

Posted: July 23, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

Today the Israeli Defence Forces tweeted that Hamas had called upon UNRWA to refrain from opening up shelters for those Gazans fleeing the current fighting:

thumb.phpIn fact, the statement (here, in Arabic) from the Hamas Department of Refugee Affairs is a little more nuanced that. First, it certainly does discourage Palestinians from leaving their homes:

We call on our people in the border areas of to be steadfast and not to leave their areas, because that is part of the psychological warfare practiced by the enemy. There must be no success for the aggressive policy of occupation, as happened in the Nakba in 1948.

The statement does not exactly forbid UNRWA from opening shelters, however, but rather asks that this only be done in coordination with the popular committees in the camps and the Ministry of the Interior. It warns that UNRWA should open facilities where the safety of these from israeli attack can be assured:

We call on UNRWA to not open shelters or open schools as evacuation centers without coordination with the popular refugee committees and the Interior Ministry and concerned authorities. UNRWA holds full responsibility for the safety of displaced persons sheltering them, for we still recall the massacre Fakhurah in the War of 2009, where UNRWA did not protect its school nor did the occupation [Israel] bear results of its crime. It also did not protect the UNRWA headquarters, which Israel bombed repeatedly.

An IDF mortar attack against the area of the Fakhurah school in 2009 killed some forty persons.

The statement also calls upon the Hamas administration to encourage steadfastness and discourage flight:

We call on the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs to redouble their efforts to stabilize families in their homes and neighbourhoods and towns, and to disseminate reassurance to them throughout the day and night, and to raise the level of steadfastness and sacrifice. They must warn them of the consequences of displacement and remind them of the painful experiences of [past] asylum and displacement.

Net verdict: Hamas is discouraging refugees from relocating to shelters, and would clearly like to discourage UNRWA from opening additional shelters without Hamas approval (although it is taking no actual active measures to prevent UNRWA from doing so). The reasons for Hamas policy are not clear from the statement itself. Certainly there is a concern with being once more displaced by Israel—after all, the vast majority of the population of Gaza are those whose families were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and driven into exile. There may also be some concern, as expressed in the statement, with the coordination of policy.

However, it is also likely that Hamas finds political and military advantage in the presence of large civilian populations in dense urban areas, hoping that this constrains Israeli actions. Conversely, the flight of civilians in these areas would certainly work to the IDF’s tactical and political advantage—precisely why it has encouraged the local population to flee.

Where they are supposed to go, of course, isn’t always clear. Given the scope of Israeli attacks and the high proportion of civilian casualties—over 70% by UN estimate—there are are no truly safe places in Gaza to which anyone can flee.

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