Recently, UNRWA has been trying to decrease the number of its schools still used as shelters by Palestinian families that were displaced following the 2014 Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. In an attempt to do so, UNRWA has allocated one school in each area to be used as a shelter. UNRWA aims to reconstruct the damaged schools, including those used as shelters, in preparation for the upcoming academic year. Transferring individuals into a few designated shelters will create similar housing conditions to those faced at the beginning of the crisis, including overpopulated rooms, inadequate sanitation and regular power cuts.
On Wednesday 17 June 2015 at approximately 1:30 pm, Hazem Khalil Ba'loushah, 36, went with his colleagues, including foreign journalists, to the Al-Zaytoun UNRWA Girls High School in Tal Al-Hawa, which had been used as a shelter for those displaced since July 2014. Hazem and his colleagues were there to film scenes from the school for a film they are making in commemoration of the 2014 war. UNRWA had earlier informed them that all those seeking shelter at the UNRWA schools had been evacuated.
Once they arrived, they saw some of the displaced putting their luggage on carts and in cars to leave the school. Hazem and his colleagues began filming while standing outside the school. Suddenly, a group of those leaving the school congregated around the cameras and spoke to the journalists. They angrily told them how they were being forcibly removed from the UNRWA school by the police and that they had no place to go. A few minutes later, an individual came out of the school and told them that he poured benzene on his body in order to set himself on fire, but the police prevented him and beat him.
Approximately 10 minutes later, Hazem saw police officers carrying batons and some of them carrying Kalashnikovs. A man, dressed in civilian clothing, and leading the officers approached Hazem and the journalists. He shouted at them that they were not allowed to film, and that they should give them their cameras immediately. Following Hazem's inquiry, the man identified himself as a detective from the police department.
Another police officer yelled at Hazem and the journalists while trying to violently pull a camera away from one of them. Hazem intervened and asked the officers why they were not allowed to film in that area and why they were being treated poorly. Two officers then pulled Hazem into the school. The rest of his team was also brought into the school. The officer in charge yelled at Hazem and pushed him on his chest. The officer then removed the memory card from the camera. The team was kept inside the school for about an hour. Hazem was prohibited from making any phone calls. He was also verbally assaulted and slapped in the face and chest by an officer. They waited until an employee from the government's information department arrived at approximately 3:00 pm, who then confiscated the camera, the memory card and the journalists' other equipment.
Hazem was transferred to Al-Abbas police station while his colleagues were released. Hazem sent a text message from his cell phone to individuals in the Ministry of Interior, including the Information Department, Hamas leaders, some colleagues, and friends asking for assistance. Once at the police station, he was registered and then moved to the detention room. Before his personal belongings were taken away, Hazem received a phone call on his cell phone from the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior who informed him that he would be released shortly. He was then taken into a cell where he stayed for about 45 minutes before he was given back his personal belongings and released.
Following his release, a Hamas spokesperson assisted Hazem in retrieving the confiscated camera and equipment on the condition that no footage of the police from that day was published. (Al-Haq Affidavit No. 10754/2015)
Almost a year after the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, the already grave living conditions therein continue to worsen as any real reconstruction process is absent. This has had a particularly severe effect on Palestinian civilians, especially those who were displaced as a result of the war. Israel, as the Occupying Power, must immediately lift the closure of Gaza, and ensure that the reconstruction process is undertaken in a timely manner. Other authorities, including Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and the UNRWA, should ensure that those still displaced have viable housing alternatives. The right of an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing, must be secured for the occupied Palestinian population.
Accordingly, it remains crucial that information on the dismal situation in Gaza continues to be disseminated. Hazem and other journalists like him must be able to operate in a manner that fully respects freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Palestinian Basic Law. Article 32 of the same Law states that the violation of such freedoms is a criminal act punishable by law.
Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: the rights to form, hold, receive and impart opinions; free and equal access to information; the duty to present news and information fairly and impartially; as well as the right to freedom of expression and opinion. As noted by the Human Rights Committee, a “free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights.” As such, Al-Haq calls upon the Palestinian authorities in Gaza to respect the right to freedom of expression.
 Human Rights Committee, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, General Comment No. 34, 12 September 2011.