Imagine a strip of land - 41 km long, 6 to 12 km wide - with more than 2 million inhabitants and where half of the population are children.
Imagine that a land closure coupled with an air and sea blockade restricts imports of vital supplies and prevents people from leaving. Does it sound like an open-air prison? Does it sound like the Gaza Strip?
1 year ago, during an escalation of violence, 67 children were among the 261 Palestinians killed in their homes in the Gaza Strip. At least 12 of them were children enrolled in an EU-supported trauma care programme run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). They had nowhere safe to run.
Many Gazan children bear the brunt of the violence and live under permanent stress. That is why the EU provides humanitarian support to improve their situation. But, ultimately, only a political solution can put an end to people’s misery.
“We did not have gas, a heater, or a battery to light up the house, so we went to sleep when the sun went down,” says Nisreen, a 39-year-old single mother-of-4.
Nisreen’s apartment was damaged during last year’s hostilities. She was one of the 4,720 households to receive post-emergency assistance from the EU-funded Gaza Protection Consortium.
With her first cash grant in October 2021, Nisreen paid her rent and managed to get her home’s water and electricity reconnected.
“I paid some debts and the fees for my son to attend an educational centre so he could learn English. The money covered his transportation. With the rest, I bought notebooks and pens for his studies. All that was left after I paid the rent was 350 shekels [€100], but I covered what my children needed to study,” she says. “I want to give them everything I have.”
Since that first month, she has been able to repair some of the damage to her home, buy gas for cooking, provide her children with breakfast each day, and give them lunch money for school.
“My Choice”: a new kind of cash assistance
One of the unique aspects of the Gaza Protection Consortium’s programme, which the EU and other donors support, is that the selected families have the freedom to spend the money how they want, using a debit card at any retailer or cash machine.
Studies in several countries have found that cash assistance provides the most effective and efficient way to meet the needs of vulnerable people.
The Consortium’s surveys reveal that 8 in 10 families prefer cash to other forms of support. In fact, cash helps them to meet their children’s basic needs, such as meals and clothes, and it increases their children’s self-confidence and participation in school.
Poverty, conflict, and aid dependency
The majority of Gaza’s population is aid dependent. The blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007, renewed conflict and political divisions have crippled the economy. People are trapped in a cycle of poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity.
Armed conflict has moreover destroyed homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. Electricity is only available half of the time, and the water network is badly damaged, with disastrous consequences for children’s health.
In 2020, Fares was just 10 years old and worked to help his struggling family. From October 2020 to August 2021, his family received cash assistance. He stopped working and even attended catch-up classes at a local educational centre.
“During the grant period, my children were in excellent psychological condition. They used to go play with the children in the street,” says Fares’s father, Daifallah.
When the grant ended, Fares went back to work every evening after school. The emergency grant was meant to help families depending on daily labour and informal employment through a tough time after COVID-19 restrictions further slashed their income.
Fares earns money, giving younger children rides on an elaborately decorated toy car that he and his father built, but still goes to school.
“Fares is currently working. This has affected his studies greatly and his academic level has decreased,” Daifallah says. “Sometimes he comes home at 11 at night. Sometimes I go to be near him so I can make sure no one is harassing him. I wait for him to finish, and we go home together.”
The psychological price paid by children living in deep poverty is often overlooked.
Not having lunch money can affect a child’s ability to learn at school. Not having decent clothes can affect their motivation to attend school. And the harassment that often accompanies living in extreme poverty and debt can have negative psychological effects.
“My children and I spend most of our time at home so that no one bullies them. Many children in the area where we live make fun of my children because we are poor, so we are isolated from people,” Daifallah says.
Sustainable solutions are needed
Cash assistance helps families in a dignified way but also boosts the local economy by stimulating demand for goods and services.
A study commissioned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2018 reported a significant multiplier effect, with each US dollar spent by cash aid recipients generating US$2.44 in GDP for the Gaza economy.
Between October 2020 and December 2021, EU humanitarian aid provided a lifeline to over 4,800 of the most vulnerable families in Gaza affected by deep poverty and emergencies.
The EU continues to support the Gaza Protection Consortium and other partners who spare no effort to find income opportunities for vulnerable families. Still, in Gaza, it can seem like an uphill battle.
With barely functioning social services, the most vulnerable are without a social or economic safety net. While emergency cash assistance can help them partially break their debt cycles and improve their living situations, short-term humanitarian aid must give way to durable development and political solutions.
Ultimately, a political resolution that lifts the siege is the only way for vulnerable families in Gaza to ‘get a life’ rather than ‘just survive’.
The multi-purpose cash assistance funded by EU Humanitarian Aid has been distributed by the Gaza Protection Consortium, a partnership between the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Mercy Corps (MC) and Humanity & Inclusion (HI).
Story by Yousef Hammash (NRC) & Anouk Delafortrie (EU Humanitarian Aid). Photos: NRC/Yousef Hammash.
Publication date: 08/07/2022