* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
UNRWA will never stop doing all that we can to fulfill our mission but we cannot succeed without the financial support and consistent help of friends and partners around the world
Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA in Gaza.
As Muslims around the world culminate their daily fasts of Ramadan this week, 1.9 million people in the Gaza Strip will continue to have inadequate access to food and water – a constant and life-threatening reality which they do not come to through choice.
Since the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Gaza, which creates severe economic and humanitarian consequences. The civilian population is caught in the middle of the conflict, suffering both hunger and poverty, as well as the trauma of an existence marked by the threat of regular violence.
Today, 95 percent of Gaza’s population lives without access to clean water. Ongoing power shortages mean electricity is available for at most, half of the day, further limiting access to vital services like medical care and water treatment, as well as any kind of successful, safe functioning of hospitals, schools, shops, factories and people’s own homes. With no trade and no free movement of people or goods, the economy is near collapse. More than 53 percent of the population is unemployed.
To survive in these desperate conditions, Gaza’s 1.4 million refugees are largely dependent on food aid provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). With over 13,000 staff in Gaza – most of whom are Palestine refugees themselves – working in eight refugee camps and hundreds of installations, UNRWA does everything that it can to fulfill its UN mandate to assist and protect the refugee population, supply basic services, educate 278,000 children, maintain humane living conditions and provide primary and at times emergency health care in 22 facilities across the territory.
But this costs money. Eighty million dollars of UNRWA’s $1.2-billion annual budget goes to food aid in Gaza. 630,000 refugees who live in abject poverty (on $1.74 a day), and 400,000 who live in absolute poverty (on $3.87 a day) will begin to face shortages if UN member states fail to step up to provide the $60 million still needed to provide for Gaza food relief for the rest of this year.
UNRWA remains in financial crisis since the United States, for decades its largest single donor, suddenly ceased to fund the agency in early 2018. With this massive budget cut of $360 million per year, UNRWA is managing as best we can to provide vital life-saving services to millions of refugees. In the absence of an enduring, just solution, there is no other alternative for these services in Gaza.
UNRWA is highly concerned about the psychosocial well-being of the refugees, especially children in Gaza, after years of blockade, hostilities, deteriorating socio-economic conditions, and – more recently – the high human cost of the Great March of Return demonstrations, in which 195 Palestinians have been killed, including 14 UNRWA school children.
In May, UNRWA reinstated 500 community mental-health workers and other part-time staff in Gaza in a special measure to respond to the devastating economic and social conditions. Sixty-eight percent of children suffer from depression, sleep irregularities, anxiety or other forms of trauma. In an effort to alleviate the daily challenge of sheer survival, UNRWA is partnering with UNICEF to sponsor the “Keep Kids Cool 2019” summer games. Starting in June, activities will be held for six weeks in 40 locations across Gaza.
Even in the best of times for UNRWA, delivering food and clean water, administering medical care, and providing education to hundreds of thousands of children is a daunting task -- and these are not the best of times. A political decision by the United States abruptly ended what was for decades a commitment and a model by a global leader in humanitarian aid toward literally some of the neediest individuals in the world. This money had been appropriated by Congress to help UNRWA, a humanitarian agency.
The political situation in Gaza is complex, and there is, understandably, much debate over the root causes underlying the conflict between Israel and Hamas and how to address them. But normalizing the terrible toll that the situation is taking on innocent civilians by subjecting hundreds of thousands of people to hunger, thirst, disease and poverty is unacceptable.
Imagine being a parent so ashamed that you cannot provide your family with food or money, that you hide from your children before and after they go to school every day. That was the case with a young father I recently met.
In this spiritual season of Ramadan, I hope that responsible leaders and citizens in the United States and around the world will spare a moment to remember the refugees in Gaza, who are part of the 5.4 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East struggling to survive. International aid channeled through UNRWA is the difference between daily hunger and trepidation about the future, and a normal, dignified life for millions of civilians and their children.
UNRWA will never stop doing all that we can to fulfill our mission. But we cannot succeed without the financial support and consistent help of friends and partners around the world.