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UNRWA and the next explosion of violence against Gaza

January 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm

By international donor standards $720 million is small change. Yet, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has only managed to procure $135 million from UN member states to assist the victims whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Israel during its 2014 war on the Gaza Strip. As a result, the agency has decided to suspend its cash assistance programme for repairs and rental subsidies to 66,000 families displaced by the war.

There are several reasons for donors’ reluctance to deliver the $5.4 billion pledged to reconstruct the beleaguered Palestinian territory. For example, in the absence of any lasting political solution to the conflict and guarantees of future stability, they fear that sooner or later Israel will invade Gaza yet again and destroy what was rebuilt.

Whatever the risks, all donors nonetheless owe it to the Palestinian people in Gaza to ensure that the reconstruction effort is in no way jeopardised. Back in 2009, after the first of Israel’s most recent wars, a similar $5 billion was pledged of which only a fraction was delivered. To their credit, Arab donors and Islamic international NGOs on that occasion contributed more than western governments and UN organisations.

By not supporting UNRWA such governments have played, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, into Israel’s hands. The occupying power has made no secret of its desire to see an end to the organisation which has, since May 1950, provided aid to Palestinian refugees in historic Palestine itself as well as in neighbouring countries. No doubt some Western donor states are happy to oblige by helping Tel Aviv in its quest.

Hamas officials in the enclave described UNRWA’s decision as “dangerous and shocking”. They assert that it will exacerbate the suffering of thousands of displaced people in Gaza. At the same time they question whether the agency has done all in its powers to procure the required funds.

If nothing else, the current crisis reflects not only the failure of the donors but also, more importantly, that of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism which was brokered with Israel by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) Robert Serry. Instead of challenging the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza the UN has become a partner in the siege by agreeing to an Israeli veto on who should receive what and how much material to rebuild or repair their homes. Under the guise of preventing the flow of weapons to the Palestinian resistance groups, the agreement allowed for the private information of every affected family to be passed to the Israelis for approval.

Politically speaking, the Hamas leadership in Gaza has also laid some of the blame at the door at the Palestinian Authority. It accuses Ramallah of obstructing the functioning of the national unity government and by default creating a climate of uncertainty, which has discouraged donors from honouring their commitments. After all, who wants to pour billions of dollars into Gaza’s reconstruction when there is no guarantee that it will not be destroyed by Israel? In this light, the PA should have signed up to the Rome Treaty long ago if only to serve as a deterrent to Israeli warmongers.

UNRWA’s suspension of aid has left no doubt about who the real winners and losers are. Israel emerges as the main beneficiary of the move, because it has helped to discredit the agency in the eyes of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza. On another level, it has created another headache for Hamas, which remains the de facto authority in Gaza charged with the wellbeing of its people.

The losers are the tens of thousands of families who suffered enormous personal and financial losses during last summer’s war. Israel and its backers will continue to say that this is they price they must pay for supporting Hamas, but their words are just more outrageous sophistry. The fact is that it is not the business of the international community to decide who the people of Gaza should vote for in free and fair democratic elections. Has anyone imposed sanctions on Israelis for electing racial supremacists and neo-fascists? Are similar punishments meted out in Europe, where xenophobia and jingoism go hand in hand with racist politics paraded as proud nationalism?

Before this latest crisis, UNRWA’s spokesman Chris Gunness warned that the needs of the Gaza Strip have moved well beyond humanitarian aid. Without political action that ends Israel’s blockade and illegal wars the international community will be forever firefighting in the territory, which is today in a worse situation than it was last spring; such conditions led eventually to Israel’s summer offensive.

Left to their own devices, the Palestinians in Gaza have embarked on self-help initiatives instead of waiting for the goodwill of friends and neighbours. Their effort to build a sea port is just one example, though, which will inevitably put them on a collision course with Israel, which maintains its occupation of the Gaza Strip by closing the borders and blockading its territorial waters.

For better or worse, UNRWA’s decision to suspend the cash assistance programme is, in effect, a coded warning that Gaza is about to erupt.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.