135 UNRWA staff members are known to have been killed in Gaza since the escalation of fighting since the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel. That’s the most ever in one incident but, despite the danger and extremely difficult working conditions, UNRWA is continuing to assist those caught up in the fighting through no fault of their own. With nearly two million people displaced across the strip, many of them forced to move repeatedly in search of safety, this is a daunting task.
On 19 December, Conor Lennon from UN News spoke to Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s Director of Communications, about the agency’s role in the Occupied Palestine Territories, the impact of misinformation on UNRWA’s work, and how the team is coping with the loss of so many colleagues.
Juliette Touma: It’s a very brutal war. When I was in Gaza just a few weeks ago, I was awoken to the sound of bombardment day and night, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, if I were a mother trying to get my three children to sleep every night.
All of this is unprecedented: the volume, the level of destruction, the displacement of people, the grief that this has brought on the agency with the loss of colleagues, the hits on our own facilities, and the fact that all of this happened in just over seven weeks. It’s like nothing I’ve seen throughout my 20 years of service with the United Nations.
There’s also the very tight siege that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip now for seven very long weeks, restricting the supplies that UN and humanitarian community can bring in, such as food, water, and fuel.
There are now more than 1.4 million people seeking refuge in UNRWA shelters. Our own staff are grieving, and they have themselves been displaced, but they are doing everything possible.
At the same time, we have been subjected to a misinformation campaign since the beginning of this conflict, with cyber attacks on our website, our donation site, and on social media lies and rumours have spread like wildfire.
UN News: Can you share some examples?
Juliette Touma: We have seen several attacks on the way we teach, and what we teach in our schools. We are the only UN agency that runs schools, and we operate 700 of them across the region.
We use textbooks that are provided by the host governments in the five areas of operation, but we have a very strict scrutiny system that looks into the content of those books, and we train our teachers all the time on how to teach the content in those books.
Our teachers are trained to provide education in a way that helps the children follow the values of the United Nations, including peace and tolerance, and no hatred and no racism.
Other accusations concern the involvement of our staff in the fighting, and their political affiliation with certain armed groups in Gaza.
These misinformation campaigns weaken the efforts of what is currently the largest humanitarian organization in the Gaza Strip, catering to the needs of at least 1.4 million people who are in our shelters.
UN News: Although your agency has come under much more scrutiny since 7 October, it has existed since the early days of the UN.
Juliette Touma: Yes, we’re one of the oldest United Nations agencies, and the biggest in Gaza, where we’ve been operating for seven decades.
Our largest programme involves providing education but sadly, since 7 October, we have had to close all of our schools, and turn many of them into shelters.
We provide primary healthcare to over one million people, and food assistance to more than 1.2 million people. We also provide cash assistance and some cash for work programs to families in need.
The communities in the Gaza Strip see UNRWA as a trusted entity, which is why they come to our shelters seeking protection and safety. They trust the United Nations blue flag to protect them.
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?
Juliette Touma: I think we have a team of heroes in Gaza. Our frontline workers are there every single day in our shelters, providing assistance, listening, and providing counselling.
They are doing other things that may seem very simple, but in the context of war are absolutely lifesaving, like collecting garbage, which started to pile up.
Around 70 per cent of them have been displaced: they have lost colleagues, neighbours, family members, and their homes, yet thousands of them are still putting on the UN vest every single morning.
I think this is a testament to the very strong sense of community that Gaza has been known for, for many decades, and a society that has endured a tight 15-year blockade, along with several cycles of conflict.
UN News: You must be thinking about how this plays out. Are you having those discussions?
Juliette Touma: No, for the very simple reason that we’re focusing on the here and now. We have a very solid team of professionals, highly experienced in conflicts, natural disasters, and humanitarian work. But, despite this vast experience, we all say that this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
And so, our focus right now is to support people who need us most on the ground in Gaza, bring in humanitarian assistance, tell the story of what’s happening, and advocate for an end to this war.