Palestinians brace for the worst

Palestinians receive food aid at a UN warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City.  Across the Middle East, millions of people depend on UN support. — AP
Palestinians receive food aid at a UN warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City. Across the Middle East, millions of people depend on UN support. - AP

Shati Refugee Camp (Gaza Strip) - Any cut in US aid could ripple across Mideast with unintended consequences


Published: Tue 16 Jan 2018, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 16 Jan 2018, 9:50 PM

Mahmoud Al Qouqa can't imagine life without the three sacks of flour, cooking oil and other staples he receives from the United Nations every three months.
 Living with 25 relatives in a crowded home in this teeming Gaza Strip slum, the meager rations provided by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugee families, are the last thing keeping his family afloat in the territory hard hit by years of poverty and conflict. But that could be in danger as the United States, UNRWA's biggest donor, threatens to curtail funding.
 "It will be like a disaster and no one can predict what the reaction will be," Al Qouqa said.
 Across the Middle East, millions of people who depend on UNRWA are bracing for the worst. The expected cut could also add instability to struggling host countries already coping with spillover from other regional crises.
 UNRWA was established in the wake of the 1948 Mideast war surrounding Israel's creation. An estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the fighting.
 In the absence of a solution for these refugees, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, the original refugee camps have turned into concrete slums and more than 5 million refugees and their descendants now rely on the agency for services including education, health care and food. The largest populations are in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon.
Seen by the Palestinians and most of the international community as providing a valuable safety net, UNRWA is viewed far differently by Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses the agency of perpetuating the conflict by helping promote an unrealistic dream that these people have the "right of return" to long-lost properties in what is now Israel.
"UNRWA is part of the problem, not part of the solution," he told foreign journalists last week. Noting that the Palestinians are the only group served by a specific refugee agency, he said UNRWA should be abolished and its responsibilities taken over by the main UN refugee agency.
 Some in Israel have even tougher criticism, accusing UNRWA of teaching hatred of Israel in its classrooms and tolerating or assisting Hamas militants in Gaza.
Blaming the Palestinians for lack of progress in Mideast peace efforts, President Donald Trump has threatened to cut American assistance to the Palestinians. UNRWA would be the first to be affected.
The US provides about $355 million a year to UNRWA, roughly one-third of its budget.
US officials in Washington said this week the administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the year's first contribution, cutting a planned $125 million installment by half or perhaps entirely. The decision could come as early as Tuesday.
 Matthias Schmale, UNRWA's director in Gaza, said Washington has not informed the agency of any changes. However, "we are worried because of the statements ... in the media and the fact that the money hasn't arrived yet," he said.
 Schmale dismissed the Israeli criticisms, saying that individuals who spread incitement or aid militants are isolated cases and promptly punished. And he said Netanyahu's criticism should be directed at the UN General Assembly, which sets UNRWA's mandate, not the agency itself.
 Any cut in US aid could ripple across the region with potentially unintended consequences.
 Gaza may be the most challenging of all of UNRWA's operating areas. Two-thirds of Gaza's 2 million people qualify for services, and its role is amplified given the poor state of the economy, which has been hit hard by three wars with Israel and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power over a decade ago. Unemployment is 43 per cent and the poverty rate is 38 per cent, according to the official Palestinian statistics office.
 "Nowhere else are we the biggest service provider for the population of the entire territory," Schmale said. He said UNRWA provides food assistance to 1 million Gazans, calling it "an expression of collective shame for the international community."
 With more than 12,500 teachers, nurses and other staff, UNRWA is Gaza's largest non-governmental employer. It is also involved in postwar reconstruction projects.
 The dire situation in Gaza is evident inside Al Qouqa's home, which is so cramped the family has made sleeping spaces with wood boards and fabric. Two male family members are unemployed. Two others are Hamas civil servants and get paid only intermittently by the cash-strapped movement.
 At 72, Al Qouqa is worried about his grandchildren. "If UNRWA provides them with bread, they can remain patient. But if it was cut, what will they become? They will become thieves, criminals and a burden on society," he said. Many believe Hamas, which administers schools and social services in Gaza, will step in to fill the void.
 Jordan, a crucial ally in the US-led battle against militants, is home to the largest number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants - with nearly 2.2 million people eligible for UNRWA services.

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