Interview with Senior UNRWA Official Reflects on Unprecedented Conflict in Gaza: Devastation, Displacement, and Sorrow.
Since the 7 October attacks, there have been reports of 135 UNRWA employees who have lost their lives in Gaza due to the ongoing escalation of violence. This is the highest number of casualties in a single incident. Despite the hazardous circumstances and challenging work environment, UNRWA remains committed to providing aid to those affected by the conflict, who are innocent victims. With nearly two million individuals displaced throughout the strip, and many constantly seeking refuge, this is an overwhelming responsibility.
On December 19th, Conor Lennon of UN News interviewed Juliette Touma, the Director of Communications for UNRWA. They discussed the agency’s responsibilities in the Occupied Palestine Territories, the effects of false information on UNRWA’s operations, and how the team is handling the loss of numerous colleagues.
Juliette Touma expressed that the war in Gaza is extremely violent. She recently visited the area and was constantly disturbed by the continuous bombing, both during the day and at night. She couldn’t help but imagine the struggle of being a mother trying to put her three children to sleep every night amidst such chaos.
I have never witnessed anything like the current situation: the extent of damage, the magnitude of displacement and loss, the emotional toll on our team due to the loss of coworkers, the attacks on our own buildings, and the speed at which everything occurred in just seven weeks. In my two decades of working with the United Nations, I have not encountered anything comparable.
For the past seven weeks, the Gaza Strip has been under a strict siege, limiting the amount of supplies that can be brought in by the UN and humanitarian organizations, including food, water, and fuel.
Currently, over 1.4 million individuals are seeking shelter in UNRWA facilities. Despite our staff members being personally affected and displaced, they are working tirelessly to provide aid.
From the start of this conflict, we have faced a campaign of false information through cyber attacks on our website, donation site, and social media. This has resulted in the rapid spread of lies and rumors.
Can you provide some instances?
Juliette Touma stated that there have been numerous instances of criticism towards our educational methods and curriculum in schools. She added that our organization is unique in its role as the sole United Nations agency responsible for managing schools, with a total of 700 schools under our operation in the region.
We utilize textbooks given by the host governments in five operational areas. However, we have a rigorous review process that evaluates the material in these books. Additionally, we continuously train our teachers on how to effectively teach the content from these books.
Our educators are prepared to teach in a manner that promotes the principles of the United Nations, such as peace and acceptance, and rejects any form of hatred or racism.
There are additional allegations regarding our employees participating in conflicts and having ties to specific armed factions in Gaza.
The spread of false information undermines the work of the largest humanitarian group in the Gaza Strip, which serves the basic needs of over 1.4 million individuals residing in our shelters.
The UN News reports that while your organization has faced increased scrutiny since October 7th, it has been a part of the UN since its inception.
Juliette Touma: Yes, we are one of the longest-standing agencies within the United Nations and the largest in Gaza, where we have been providing services for over 70 years.
Unfortunately, our main focus is on education, but as of October 7th, we have had to shut down all of our schools and convert some of them into shelters.
We offer primary healthcare services to a population of over one million individuals, and provide food aid to more than 1.2 million people. Additionally, we supply financial assistance and have programs that offer monetary compensation for work to families in need.
The people living in the Gaza Strip view UNRWA as a reliable organization, which is why they seek refuge and security in our shelters. They have confidence in the United Nations blue flag to keep them safe.
UN News: Over 100 of your facilities have been damaged since 7 October, and more than 130 of your colleagues have been killed. How do you keep going in these circumstances?
I believe that our Gaza team consists of true heroes. Our frontline workers dedicate themselves every day to serving in our shelters, offering aid, lending an ear, and providing guidance.
They are undertaking tasks that may appear mundane, but in the midst of war, these actions are crucial for saving lives. One such task is rubbish removal, as the buildup of waste can pose a serious threat.
Approximately 70% of the individuals have been forced to relocate, resulting in the loss of coworkers, neighbors, loved ones, and their residences. Despite this, thousands of them continue to wear the UN uniform every morning.
I believe this demonstrates the powerful sense of unity within Gaza, which has been renowned for many years. It is a society that has persisted through a strict 15-year blockade and multiple periods of conflict.
UN News: Are you actively engaging in these discussions and considering the potential outcomes?
Juliette Touma stated that the team is currently prioritizing the present situation. The professionals on the team have ample experience in handling conflicts, natural disasters, and humanitarian efforts. But, even with their extensive background, they all agree that this is an unprecedented situation.
Currently, our primary goal is to provide aid to those in Gaza who are most in need, as well as deliver humanitarian aid, share the situation with the public, and push for an end to the ongoing conflict.