Bombarding Palestinian Refugee Camps in Gaza

[MONTRÉAL] A little-known detail about Gaza that is rarely mentioned in the media is that within its borders exist 8 United Nations refugee camps: Palestinian refugees within occupied Palestinian territories. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the 365-square-kilometre Gaza Strip has a total population of approximately 1.4 million of which up to one million are registered refugees living both inside and outside of the camps.

Since the bombardment of the Gaza Strip began on December 27, 2008, there are certainly fewer refugees than before the attacks, considering the escalating death tole, which according to the BBC is now higher than 600 deaths. The BBC’s Gaza Conflict Map, shows that the Shati, Jabaliya (including its UN school) and Rafah refugee camps have been directly bombed. This map follows the conflict, offering two separate views: one of the latest attacks and another of the accumulated attacks since the Israeli offensive began.

A friend sent me this link to a blog about making a push to get up to date maps of Gaza in OpenStreetMap. It could be an interesting place to document in detail the bombardment of the Gaza Strip. This wiki-type mapping can rival BBC’s Conflict Map if Gazan’s mapped out their own relationship with the present war. If only they had electricity, among other essentials like sufficient food, water, fuel and medicine.

How is it possible that the military of one country can attack United Nations refugee camps without the condemnation by the United Nations Security Council? According to a Jan 5 article in the Jerusalem Post, the United States chose to veto a statement proposed by Libya calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza because they considered it “unbalanced.”

What makes UNRWA refugee camps different from other refugee camps elsewhere in the world? First, the UNRWA is the United Nations’ first organization of its kind and was created by UN General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Originally established  as a temporary organization, UNRWA has been forced to adapt its programs to meet the changing needs of the Palestinian refugees. Today, UNRWA is the main provider of education, health, relief and social services to more than 4.6 million registered Palestine refugees throughout the Middle East living within camp in Lebanon (12 camps), Syria (9 camps), The West Bank (19 camps) and Jordan (10 camps), and living outside of camps. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2011.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950. UNHCR’s mandate uses the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention as its major tool to ensure the basic human rights of vulnerable persons and that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution. The organization also helps civilians repatriate to their homeland, integrate in countries of asylum or resettle in third countries.

One of the problems for Palestinian refugees is that when the UNHCR was established, UNRWA’s mandate was not integrated and assimilated into UNHCR’s mandate so they do not benefit from the same protection and rights stipulated by the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.

In Canada, UNRWA-registered Palestinians who seek refugee status are not considered refugees as they would be if they were registered by the UNHCR. Many Palestinian refugees deported back to refugee camps (sometimes via the United States through the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement).

An earlier post from June 2008 includes a short documentary about the situation of Palestinian refugees facing deportation from Canada that was produced in 2003 by following the campaign by the Montréal-based Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. It includes images of the flattening of a portion of the Jenin Refugee Camp by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 2002.

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An interesting article in the TimesOnline, We must adjust our distorted image of Hamas, is well worth the read as a counter point to the regular image we get of Hamas in Canadian media. The article is written by William Sieghart. And an Op-Ed piece written by Rashid Khalidi in the Jan. 7 edition of The New York Times is titled, What you don’t know about Gaza, some of which I already knew, some I didn’t.

Al Jazeera has recently put on its website a Creative Commons repository of broadcast quality video footage from inside the Gaza Strip, called the War on Gaza. The videos have no subtitles so during interviews are in arabic only, however the videos are well annotated with a short description of every image sequence.

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