UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa completes visit to Palestine

Experiencing the challenges of the Palestinian children

RD 2016
UINCEF SOP/ Ahed Izhiman
23 December 2016

EAST JERUSALEM, 23 December 2016 - Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, has completed a four-day visit to the State of Palestine, where he witnessed firsthand the challenges which children face; results achieved for and with them through UNICEF-supported programmes and partnerships; and the hopes and dreams children have.

“The State of Palestine has achieved great strides in some fields, such as immunization or education. However some challenges remain, making UNICEF’s mandate more important than ever,” Cappelaere said.

“In Gaza, children are still suffering from the impact of the 2014 hostilities. We need to help them recover and move forward,” he added.

In the south of the Gaza Strip, Cappelaere drank one of the first glasses of safe drinking water produced by the new and largest seawater desalination plant currently in Gaza, built by UNICEF and partners thanks to a €10 million grant from the European Union.

It is planned for the plant to start serving 75,000 Palestinians early next year. It will help respond to the Gaza water crisis -- up to 95 percent of the water drawn from the aquifer in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.

Cappelaere was greeted by Palestinian adolescents living in the areas which the plant will serve. They told him how they participated in a campaign aimed at raising awareness among beneficiaries on safe handling water practices, and the need not to waste water.

In Gaza City, the Regional Director visited tiny newborns at Al Shifa Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He saw how new incubators help fragile, premature newborns to survive -- newborns' mortality rate at Al Shifa dropped from 30% to 7% after UNICEF renovated and reequipped the unit, and trained 280 doctors and nurses, thanks to funding from Japan.

Before the rehabilitation, the unit did not have any adequately trained staff and used very old equipment, with babies crammed into one hall, without an isolation room for infectious cases and with a serious deficit in the number of incubators and other equipment required to treat newborns. Hospitals across the Gaza Strip can now safely refer newborns suffering from premature birth, congenital diseases, respiratory defects and septicemia to the Unit.

Experiencing the challenges Palestinian children face to access school

Traveling to the West Bank, Cappelaere visited Cordoba School in the Old City of Hebron, where he saw the restrictions which Palestinian children face to access education.

“I experienced the challenges which children face to reach their school and be able to learn in Hebron,” Cappelaere said. “I heard about the difficulties and delays their teachers experience to access the school so they can teach students and help them have the life they are entitled to.”

UNICEF runs a ‘protective presence and accompaniment’ programme to help students and teachers reach school safely past Israeli military checkpoints and settlements in the city. Volunteers with UNICEF partners EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel) and CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) walk with the students to protect them from harassment and delas, while reporting on education-related violations.

Cappelaere also met with social workers at the Hebron Directorate of the Ministry of Social Development, with whom UNICEF works closely. They explained how they investigate suspected cases of child abuse and take appropriate action to protect the children, despite being overwhelmed with a growing number of cases.

Moving to East Jerusalem, Geert Cappelaere visited Silwan, an underprivileged neighbourhood where an increasing number of Palestinian children have been arrested by Israeli Security Forces (ISF) or report being harassed by settlers.

At the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre, Cappelaere spoke with three Palestinian boys aged 13-14 who have been arrested and detained by ISF.

UNICEF supports a legal aid programme at the Centre. This community-based organization provides assistance to children through legal representation, awareness-raising on their rights and psychosocial support, and reports on violations in East Jerusalem.

The Centre identified 591 Palestinian children arrested by ISF in 2016, including 11 children below the age of 12.  Nearly 80 per cent of them were provided with legal assistance. 

The Regional Director ended his visit in Abu Dis, also in East Jerusalem but on the other side of the Barrier. Adolescents from five vulnerable communities showed him the UNICEF-supported “entrepreneurial” initiatives which they developed and participated in.

All of them were trained on entrepreneurial and community engagement skills to help them come up with ideas for innovative entrepreneurial initiatives, think about their future careers, and promote volunteerism. Working in groups, the adolescents presented their ideas to community members and representatives of the private sector, giving them the opportunity to get feedback and advice, and to mobilize funds to implement their initiatives.

Some adolescents told Cappelaere that they wanted to plant seeds and sell plants in pot, using the profits from the sale to open a tiny park in Silwan, where there are no green areas. Others explained that they wanted to make and sell clothes using recycled fabric and their embroidery skills; profits would be used to pay for the tuition of poor students.

 “The senior Palestinian officials I met told me that their society needs creative and innovative ideas,” Cappelaere said. “Today I found this creativity in these adolescents, who pitch projects worth investing in to the private sector.”

During his visit, the Regional Director met with Palestinian and Israeli officials and with the Israeli Fund for UNICEF, as well as a wide range of UNICEF’s partners in the State of Palestine, including from government line ministries, civil society, and sister UN agencies