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Displaced children in tents in the Gaza war seeking warmth, November 27, 2023.


Yousef Hammash, Courtesy of NRC


The Norwegian Refugee Council Struggles to Carry Out Its Duties across Palestine as the War Rages On


The view from the ground through the eyes of a European NGO that assists Palestinians who are forcibly displaced in the West Bank and Gaza


The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is an independent humanitarian organization headquartered in Norway that assists refugees who have been forced to flee their homes. Its key areas of operation include food security, education, shelter, legal assistance, protection from violence, water, sanitation, and hygiene. Launched in 1946 after World War II, the NRC now operates in 40 countries.

The NRC has been operating in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza since 2009. Today, it has 9 international and 112 local staff, 50 of whom are based in Jerusalem. They provide assistance and promote international law across the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT).

However, Israel’s war on Gaza that began on October 7, 2023, has ground the NRC’s work there to a halt and seriously interrupted its work in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

On December 7, 2023, Jerusalem Story spoke with Shaina Low, Communications Advisor for NRC, about the many challenges the organization and its staff now face.

Jerusalem Story: Can you describe the NRC’s operations in Palestine?

Shaina Low: Our country office is based in [East] Jerusalem. We have a field office in Hebron and an area office in Gaza. Half of our staff is based in Gaza, where we run about four different programs, and in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, we run two programs. The first is Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance,1 which is a legal aid program that works primarily on issues related to the displacement of Palestinians, with a focus on Area C and East Jerusalem.

We also run an education program called Better Learning,2 which works to help children overcome traumatic experiences and displacement and excel academically. We recently started a Protection from Violence3 program in Hebron and the surrounding area, which focuses on civilian self-protection.

Tents for displaced Palestinians in Gaza, November 27, 2023

Tents set up beside an UNRWA school in southern Gaza to provide shelter for the 1.7 Palestinians displaced from their homes in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip due to Israel’s assault, which began on October 7, 2023. Shown here on November 27, 2023.


Yousef Hammas, courtesy of NRC

Up until October 7, 2023, we ran an education program in Gaza as well as a shelter program, assisting vulnerable families at risk of eviction with cash to pay for rent and repairing substandard homes. We also run a program that focuses on protection case management and individual assistance for those who fall outside the mainstream humanitarian response, and we host the Gaza Protection Consortium, which, up until October 7, took a cash-plus approach. This means that it provided multipurpose cash to vulnerable families to cover mental health and psychosocial services, in addition to assistance for those with disabilities.

JS: What do your operations in Gaza look like now?

SL: Our Gaza operations have been suspended as of this week. Before that, we transitioned to emergency response mode, since there’s no point providing shelter repairs when homes are being bombed and we can’t access them. For the first seven weeks of the war, we produced multipurpose cash assistance to vulnerable families and managed to reach over 4,000 households with a 60 percent redemption rate. But that is only effective as long as there are items available to buy in local markets.

“Our Gaza operations have been suspended.”

Shaina Low, NRC Communications Advisor

We managed to bring in aid during the pause in fighting [that began November 22, 2023, and lasted until December 1, 2023], but while we were figuring out how to safely distribute the aid, the pause ended. So, we lost access to the aid, because we can’t distribute it in a safe way that ensures our staff don’t get injured.

NRC aid in UNRWA warehouse in southern Gaza, November 28, 2023

NRC aid packages stored at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in southern Gaza, November 28, 2023


Yousef Hammash, courtesy of NRC

As for what’s happening now, our staff in Gaza have lost all ability to participate in a response, because they are desperate themselves. We have staff members on the streets, and one gave birth two months ago. We are unable to help our own staff at this point and cannot find shelter for them. So, it’s not possible for us to ask our colleagues in Gaza to help coordinate a response when they’re desperately in need as well. They’re in the same boat as everyone else.

JS: What were your key areas of work in [East] Jerusalem before October 7?

SL: A lot of our work focuses on preventing Palestinian displacement. So we provide legal assistance through Israeli and Palestinian partners and lawyers who defend Palestinians at risk of forcible expulsion or whose homes are at risk of demolition. We represent between 40 to 60 percent of those in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) who are at risk of forced displacement. We also host the West Bank Protection Consortium, which is a partnership of five humanitarian organizations that seek to provide comprehensive care and support communities at risk of displacement.

JS: And what’s changed in Jerusalem since October 7, 2023?

SL: There’s less attention being given to these cases. The courts are still open, but there’s less focus on forcible transfer and demolitions. This year has already surpassed last year in the number of demolitions in the West Bank as a whole. Up until October 6, the majority of our advocacy efforts were focused on displacement in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. And obviously, now our organization has had to pivot tremendously, not because these issues aren’t still important, but because the crisis in Gaza is so severe. It’s really life or death at this point.

“This year has already surpassed last year in the number of demolitions in the West Bank as a whole.”

Shaina Low, NRC Communications Advisor

Palestinians use makeshift stoves in tents in Gaza.

Palestinian families displaced from northern Gaza to the south since the start of the war have been living in tents, using makeshift stoves for cooking and for warmth in the cold, November 27, 2023.


Yousef Hammash, courtesy of NRC

JS: Do you think the Israeli authorities are taking advantage of the shift in focus?

SL: I think they’re taking advantage of the fact that attention is on Gaza, and also using what happened on October 7 as a means of expanding and tightening control. We see this in their efforts to arm settlers in the West Bank and to add millions of shekels to the budget to monitor the distribution of donor aid in Area C. So, October 7 is being used as a pretext, and policies are being implemented under the radar when people aren’t paying attention.

JS: In what ways do you think your work will change once the war ends?

SL: We’ve already seen the way that our work has shifted. A large proportion of our staff live on the other side of the Separation Wall. Some of those staff have permits or Palestinian Authority (PA) IDs that are currently not valid, and some of the staff are Jerusalem residents [with Israeli permanent-resident IDs] who live in parts of East Jerusalem that are cut off by the wall. So, it’s almost like a return to the pandemic times, where half of our staff is only available online because we can’t get them through the checkpoints to come to work.

“October 7 is being used as a pretext, and policies are being implemented under the radar when people aren’t paying attention.”

Shaina Low, NRC Communications Advisor

We don’t know how long this will last, but we’re concerned. The ability of our staff to be physically together makes us more effective and collaborative. I think we’re also going to see the organization as a whole expand our Gaza response, as well as our response to the situation here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as things continue to deteriorate even further. So, I don’t foresee us shifting our work so much as expanding what we’re already doing.

JS: What are you expanding your response to exactly? What are you preparing for?

SL: We’re dealing with a much more violent group of civilians being supported, armed, and funded by the state to actively expel Palestinians from their homes. We’ve already seen it in Area C of the West Bank. So, we are already having to develop new ways of working with these communities. Particularly in the first few weeks of the war, when movement was basically frozen [by Israeli-imposed closures and checkpoints—Ed.], we couldn’t get our Jerusalem staff to visit these communities to provide them with assistance. Since then, there has been some loosening of these movement restrictions, but it’s difficult as a Jerusalem-based organization to serve all the communities because of access restrictions and security concerns.

JS: What about settler violence in Jerusalem?

SL: In the immediate aftermath of October 7, there were cases of violence in parts of East Jerusalem, but most of what we experience here is an eerie quiet and tension. You can hear the birds chirping in Jerusalem. People are more tense and fearful afraid of speaking or acting out. So even though our office is in [the Palestinian neighborhood of] Sheikh Jarrah, there haven’t been protests or clashes with police as we’ve seen elsewhere in the West Bank, where the level and degree of violence has been huge.

We’ve seen an increase in demolitions in the last few weeks, and the amount this year has already surpassed last year. The resources of UN humanitarian agencies are not infinite, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), which usually monitors all of these different issues, had to pivot and allocate resources to Gaza. So, for a while, we weren’t getting updates on demolition times, in part because OCHA couldn’t physically verify them. However, we just saw last week that the al-Bustan [Silwan] court case was lost, and about 80 houses are now at risk of demolition or in al-Bustan, and their Palestinian residents are at risk of expulsion.4 If anything, I think October 7 will lead to an increase in annexation rather than a decrease.

Personal Story Living with the Ever-Present Threat of Expulsion

After 30 years of loving care, Samira’s home and garden convey serenity, but she stands to lose it all if Israel expels her from her home.

“If anything, I think October 7 will lead to an increase in annexation rather than a decrease.”

Shaina Low, NRC Communications Advisor

JS: How are your staff coping with this situation?

SL: We’re an international humanitarian organization that has 9 international staff and 112 local staff. It is incredibly challenging to operate and continue to work while watching a war unfold that impacts your colleagues.

Despite this, our colleagues in Jerusalem are very committed. We even repurposed our Education Team to learn how to do cash distribution. They called families in Gaza, told them that we’re sending them money, and explained to them how they can access it. Our staff really stepped up, even though they are experiencing trauma themselves. It’s important to acknowledge that.

It’s not easy for anyone to continue doing this work while witnessing atrocities on the news every single day. A number of our staff from Jerusalem were traveling regularly to Gaza, and some of our Gaza staff managed to come here for collaborative work. These are people we know and care about, so everyone here feels helpless watching what’s happening in Gaza.

“Our staff really stepped up, even though they are experiencing trauma themselves.”

Shaina Low, NRC Communications Advisor



Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA),” Norwegian Refugee Council, accessed December 27, 2023.


Protection from Violence,” Norwegian Refugee Council, accessed December 27, 2023.

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