UNRWA report on Gaza's Protests: Tragic and unnecessary loss of lives

In short conclusion, the influx of health-related incidents has brought an "already strained health-system" to near failure.

March 31, 2019 15:25
4 minute read.
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces dur

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City March 30, 2019. (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)


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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency released a report on the weekly protests that have been held in Gaza for the past year, deemed the "Great March of Return" by its organizers.

Palestinians have been staging weekly protests since last March at the border, beginning on what is known as "Palestinian Land Day," garnering over 40,000 participants, in an enclave controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas. The enclave's health ministry says that hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops at the protests. One Israeli soldier has died. The United Nations in the past has "expressed concerns about the excessive use of force deployed by the Israeli Security Forces (ISF)."

The demonstrations continue in Gaza, taking place almost every Friday after prayers in five sites constructed along the border fence with Israel. Palestinians say the weekly protests are led by civil society groups demanding an easing of the blockade and recognition of their right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel. Israel says militants use the demonstrations to threaten the border and provoke violence.

"While protests have continued to be largely non-violent and the vast majority of those in attendance are unarmed, there are often reported incidents of stone throwing as well as tire burning, attempts to damage the fence and, since April, some demonstrators flew kites or balloons towards Israel that carried burning rags and damaged Israeli property, including agricultural land," the report read. IDF in the past have also reported the throwing of explosive devices - including hand grenades and Molotov cocktails.

Israeli forces have responded to instigation by the use of tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. As of March 22, 2019, according to numbers released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the IDF have killed 195 Palestinians (including 41 children) and injured nearly 29,000 people (including over 7000 wounded with live ammunition) since the protests started 12 months ago.

“This is a situation completely underestimated by the world. More people were injured in about 10 days of mostly peaceful demonstrations than during the 50 days of an all-out war in 2014. This should have generated far more robust reactions,” the report quoted UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl as saying.

IDF spokespeople have said time and time again in the past that soldiers used riot dispersal equipment and opened fired "in accordance with standard operating procedures." Israel has also claimed in the past that it has no choice but to use deadly force at the protests to defend the frontier from militants trying to destroy the barrier and infiltrate.

The UNRWA conducted interviews with those who suffered serious injuries that that resulted in permanent injury.

"Many of those interviewed reflected that, with the loss of physical function, they felt themselves to have gone from being an asset to their family - someone who could help provide for others - to becoming a burden," the UN report stated. Many of these cases also developed into psycho-social disorders, with many having fears of crowds or other types of post-traumatic stress.

Counselors in the area are over-burdened with the amount of cases being presented to them, and therefore "non-urgent" cases will be pushed off onto the side until more services are available for to handle this influx in patients, mainly due to the high-rate of psycho-social cases that were already present before the protests even started.

“Since the largely peaceful demonstrations started a year ago, not only did nearly 200 people die, but thousands of others have suffered injuries that will scar them forever,” said UNRWA Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza Matthias Schmale. “The tragic and unnecessary loss of lives, the inability of injured people to work or go back to school and the long-term psychological implications of this violence will affect them for many years to come, adding to their despair.”

The Gazan protests have also proved to have a great impact on the lives of children living within the enclave. Twenty-percent of those with protest related injuries (533 total) were young or adolescent children, eighty-percent of those were from gunshot wounds.

"The Commission concluded that lethal force was used by the ISF against children who posed no imminent threat to soldiers and that in several instances there was reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at children intentionally," the UN report stated.

In short conclusion, the influx of health-related incidents has brought an "already strained health-system" to near failure.

“We are doing all we can to absorb the enormous pressure on our health and other facilities,” said Schmale. “However, we should remember that, although the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations are occurring within the context of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and over 12 years of an Israeli blockade, the larger context is that of a dire situation for Palestine refugees that needs a just and lasting solution.”

Israel and Egypt imposed a security blockade on the enclave after Hamas seized control of it in 2007, which the World Bank says has reduced the local economy to a state of collapse. Israel has fought three wars against Hamas in the past decade.

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