Ramzy Abu Swerh is one of the tens of thousands of Gazans whose houses were heavily damaged in the 2014 fifty-one-day war, the most prolonged Israeli attack on Gaza.
A large part of his two-story house was damaged when a warplane bombed his sister’s home on July 28 of that year, four meters away from his dwelling.
His mother’s apartment, which was on the first story of his house, was completely destroyed.
“The entire two-story house was uninhabitable. We had no place to live; I had to stay with my relatives,” he said.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Gaza, pledged to compensate Gazans whose houses were damaged in 2014. The agency asked residents to repair their houses at their own expense and then submit for reimbursement. However, after residents began making repairs, often by borrowing construction materials on credit, the agency failed to compensate them. This has left many people in debt and without livable homes, even eight years later.
The debt accumulation has gotten to the point that some residents have been arrested and imprisoned for not being able to repay the businesses that lent them materials. In desperation, dozens of Palestinians recently protested outside the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza, calling on the agency to fulfill its commitments and pay the compensation it promised.
Abu Swerh, one of the protesters, explained, “The damages to my apartment were estimated to cost $7000 to repair, and my mother’s apartment to cost $18000. Yet I received only $2000 from UNRWA, and my mother didn’t get a cent.”
He noted that the UNRWA did not provide any funding for him to rent somewhere to stay while rebuilding and that they told him to repair his house at his expense to receive compensation.
“I borrowed enough construction materials from a local store to repair the windows and walls, which took a year. I then returned to my house, but the owner of the store started asking for his money,” the retired employee of the Palestinian Authority said.
“Since I received only $2,000 in compensation, I couldn’t pay all my debts to the store owner. So the police came after me to try to arrest me for not paying my debt, and I had to go into hiding. Finally, the store owner agreed to a monthly installment plan in which I paid 200-300 shekels at a time.”
Throughout the year that he stayed with his relative, he continued to ask UNRWA for the compensation he had been promised, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
“My house is still damaged to date. In winter, water leaks from the roof. We live an unstable life full of worries,” he said angrily, adding, “UNRWA has compensated the owners of homes damaged in the 2021 Israeli attack on Gaza. What about us? It’s not fair at all. We appeal to the world to stand by us and encourage the UNRWA to compensate us.”
Mohammed Al-Najjar, the 60-year-old former director of the Almaghazi Municipality, lives in a two-story house that was hit by a bomb and severely damaged.
UNWRA approved the compensation of $5,000 for the repairs to his home. They then deposited only $2,000 of that amount into his bank account.
“Without thinking, I objected to the decision to compensate me $5,000 because this didn’t consider all the damage. Unfortunately, when I complained, UNRWA withdrew the $2,000 they had already deposited, leaving me with nothing,” he said.
Al-Najjar says it is impossible for people to understand how much water leaks through the concrete cracks on the top of his roof during winter; the water reaches his apartment on the first floor. The humidity from the leaks has also spoiled the paint on the walls.
As a result of the bombing, he also lost his food stores and saw two washing machines and all of his furniture destroyed.
Al-Najjar expressed bitter disappointment about this. “I can’t believe that the UN now dares to say that it has closed our file and there will never be compensated. This decision psychologically destroys us. We can’t rely on them.”
“I had no choice but to fix the damage to my house as the walls could have fallen in on us at any time, and the bombardment left spaces between the stairs and in the roof, which allowed the water to easily leak,” Al-Najjar declared.
“I was expecting the UNRWA would compensate me, so now I owe money to the store for the construction materials and the contractors who repaired the house. I no longer trust UNRWA to be an international agency that complies with laws and appreciates the human toll of its actions,” he said disappointedly. “I hold UNRWA accountable for failing to compensate us for our losses.”
A month ago, UNRWA stated that the compensation cases had been closed and had become a thing of the past, saying that donor countries did not want to pay to remediate damage from past aggressions. Adnan Abu Hasna, the UNRWA spokesman, stated to the local media, “No news, no funding for compensation for houses damaged in 2014. Donor countries are declining to fund the repairs, saying that since it’s been eight years, the claims can no longer be handled.”
He added, “Donors lost interest in compensating the costs of repairs because they view them as old, and there are now more recent crises needing intervention. But UNRWA is doing its best to collect the funding for the compensation of repairs made to homes damaged in 2014.”
There has been no acknowledgment from donor countries because this issue has become so old, and they couldn’t handle it.
Abdulhadi Muslam, the spokesman for the owners of the houses damaged by the 2014 Israeli attacks, said, “The UNRWA estimated that more than 135,000 homes were partially or destroyed by the bombing, requiring almost $70 million in repairs. Roughly 51,000 families were never paid. The owners of these destroyed homes who have rebuilt their houses have done so at the expense of their children’s livelihood and by going into debt, hoping to be able to pay later.”
He explained that withholding compensation severely affects low-income families. They sink deeply into debt and only try to repair the most extreme damage while continuing to live in partially destroyed homes.
Even now, the police continue to pursue many families that can’t pay their debts, charging them criminally and imprisoning them. Muslam personally knows most of the homeowners who have been detained.
“I denounce the eight-year delay in dealing with this issue. UNRWA promised to compensate these people but failed to fulfill its promise,” he said.
This story is co-published with Palestine Chronicle.