Gaza Survivors Struggle to Cope with Loss

Ala' and Jamil Balatah, Jabaliya refugee camp, July 2015. Photo by OCHA
Ala' and Jamil Balatah, Jabaliya refugee camp, July 2015. Photo by OCHA

Ala’ Balatah: the only survivor of his immediate family

July marked one year since the outbreak of hostilities in the Gaza Strip and Israel. The hostilities had a devastating impact on civilians in the Gaza Strip, including an unprecedented number of civilian casualties and homes destroyed. A particularly painful aspect of this conflict has been the large number of families that sustained multiple fatalities: information collected by OCHA indicates that a total of 142 Palestinian families had three or more members killed in the same incident for a total of 742 fatalities. One year on, most people in the Gaza Strip are still struggling to cope with the immense losses they experienced and attempting to reconstruct their lives.

Shortly after the start of the hostilities, Naim Nasmi Balatah, aged 45, relocated with his family to the house of his brother, Abdul-Kareem, which was made from concrete rather than asbestos and was considered safer. On 29 July, Abdul-Kareem’s house was struck by several Israeli air missiles, most likely precision guided munitions, which indicates that the home may have been directly targeted. Eleven family members were killed and another 41 civilians, including 17 children and five women, were wounded.

The case of the Balatah family home, Jabaliya refugee camp

Survivors stated that the family had just finished a long meal on the second day of the Eid al Fitr celebration and most of the family members were taking a nap at the time of the attack. The UN Independent Commission of Inquiry pointed out that, regarding this case, “the commission has not received any information suggesting that there was a military target in the house, and to date, the IDF has made no statement concerning the incident. It appears that no warning was issued”.

Naim, his wife Saha, aged 42, and his six daughters were killed instantly. The couple’s eight-year-old son died on his way to hospital. The one-year-old son of one of the daughters and the son of Abdul-Kareem were also killed. Eighteen year old Ala’, who was outside the house at the time, is the only surviving member of his immmediate family.

Coping with the loss

Football match in memory of Naim Balatah

Football match in memory of Naim Balatah

One year later, Ala’s uncle, Jamil Balatah, recounts the traumatic events and the year since the airstrike that killed his brother and his brother’s family. Jamil works as a driver for the British Council and insisted on telling the story in English so that Ala’ would not understand and would be spared from reliving the trauma and losses, remaining focused on the future.

Jamil recalled how Ala’ moved in with another uncle immediately after the ceasefire, staying for three months before relocating to Jamil’s house, where he felt more comfortable with cousins of his own age. Just before the war, Ala’ had finished high school. His father had wanted him to succeed in his studies and Ala’ was determined to improve his grades to be able to go directly to university. In the year that passed, he registered for two courses, but did not manage to complete them. Ala’ plans to enroll in university in September for a diploma which will enable him to continue on to a bachelor’s degree if his grades will be sufficiently high.

The family recently received USD $5,000 for each family member killed in the incident from a committee funded by the United Arab Emirates to support survivors. Apart from this payment and the regular food distributions by UNRWA, the uncle lamented that “Ala’ did not receive any psychosocial support and neither have we”. This is due to the prioritization of children by specialized agencies for psychosocial interventions (see box below). Following this interview, Ala’s case was referred to UNRWA’s psychosocial services for further follow up.

With his uncle’s assistance, Ala’ is now reconstructing his family house and replacing the asbestos with cement – the reason why the family had left their home in search for safety one year ago. Ala’ recently became engaged to a 16-year-old girl from Jabaliya and the young couple will marry later this year. They hope to be able to finish the house next month so Ala’ and his bride can make a fresh start there.  “I am looking forward to getting married,” Ala’ said, with a timid smile, when asked about his hopes for the future.

For Ala’s uncles and cousins, they hope for employment opportunities. “The situation here is impossible,” said Jamil. “One son graduated from university as a nurse in 2007 and is still jobless. The other graduated in 2008 in IT and is also unemployed. The eldest son holds a Master’s degree and works as an Arabic teacher. He is a civil servant working in a government school and he is the only one who has a job. We hope the situation will improve and that Ala can find a job in the future and live a worthy life.”

Ala’ currently spends most of his time with his friends and cousins. During Ramadan, a series of football matches were organized in the camp in which the players bore t-shirts with the name Naim in memory of Ala’s father.

The UN Commission of Inquiry’s accounts on the targeting of residential properties

Mary McGowan Davis, Chairperson, Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, at press conference in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Mary McGowan Davis, Chairperson, Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, at press conference in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

On 15 June, the Independent Commission of Inquiry, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate alleged violations of international law in the 2014 summer conflict released its report. One of the practices addressed is the targeting of Palestinian residential properties, as illustrated by the case of the Balatah family.

The Commission investigated 15 cases of airstrikes on residential buildings in which a total of 216 people were killed, including 115 children and 50 women. The fact that precision-guided weapons were used in all these cases, according to the Commission, indicates that they were directed against specific targets and resulted in the total or partial destruction of entire buildings. Many of the incidents took place in the evening or at dawn, when families gathered for Ramadan meals, or at night when people were asleep. The timing of the attacks increased the likelihood that many people, often entire families, would be at home.

In nine of the 15 cases examined, the Commission found indications of possible military objectives in or nearby the affected homes, mostly individuals who were or who could have been present in the building at the time it was hit, presumably on account of their alleged links to the police, Hamas or an armed group. However, due to a lack of cooperation by the Israeli authorities, the Commission could not determine the real motive for the attacks. In a further six cases, the Commission found little or no information available that could possibly explain the motive for the attack. All the cases examined raised concerns about possible violations of the principles of distinction, proportionality or precaution in attack.

The Government of Israel has justified the legality of this practice claiming that “in some cases, the IDF – after employing all feasible precautions and making proportionality assessments – attacked military objectives that were situated within residential buildings”. This is illustrated by one such airstrike conducted on 8 July, whereby the home of a military commander of an armed faction was attacked after the IDF found that “the site was used as an operational planning site and because a large number of weapons had been stored there and designated for attacks against Israeli citizens”

Addressing children’s psychosocial needs

Four-year-old Shima with her farther Ibrahim. Her mother, brother and sister were killed in the context of an airstrike during the 2014 conflict. © UNICEF Gaza/2014

Four-year-old Shima with her farther Ibrahim. Her mother, brother and sister were killed in the context of an airstrike during the 2014 conflict. © UNICEF Gaza/2014

During the hostilities, child protection organizations focused on delivering immediate psychosocial aid to distressed children and families. Following the ceasefire, the emphasis shifted to more focused and structured psychosocial interventions to address the huge levels of stress-related symptoms among children. This included an integrated referral system for vulnerable children and families, and training of case managers for children at risk. Between July 2014 and July 2015, members of the Child Protection and Mental Health Psychosocial Support Working Groups served more than 138,000 children with psychosocial interventions, nearly 134,000 with ERW awareness raising, and 171,000 children with other child protection interventions that included career-child interaction, case management and life skills education. One year on, it is estimated that over 300,000 children in the Gaza Strip are still in need of psychosocial support.

* Information provided by the UNICEF-led Child Protection Working Group.

Israeli investigations

In the aftermath of the 2014 hostilities, the Israeli military established a mechanism for fact finding assessments (FFA Mechanism) to examine “exceptional incidents” that occurred during the military operation in Gaza. Based on the findings, the Military Advocate General (MAG) decides on follow up procedures. According to official Israeli information released in June 2015, the FFA has received allegations related to 190 cases, of which 105 have been examined and conclusions submitted to the MAG. Following review, the latter has decided to close 19 of these cases without opening a criminal investigation and referred seven cases for investigations. In an additional 15 cases where the initial allegation indicated a reasonable suspicion of criminal misconduct, the MAG ordered the opening of a criminal investigation without the need for prior examination by the FFA Mechanism. In one of these cases, the investigation was completed, leading to the indictment of three soldiers suspected of looting NIS 2,420 from a Palestinian family. The report recently released by the MAG does not contain any information about the case of the Balatah family.

* This piece originally appeared in OCHA’s July 2015 Humanitarian Bulletin.