The UN agency supplying basic services for Palestinian refugees is in a funding crisis, and is facing a difficult year as the political situation continues to hamper its work in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Despite initial pledges towards the 2008 budget from 22 donors at a meeting in New York on 4 December, some US$1.21 billion is still required.
Filippo Grandi, the deputy commissioner general of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) - which provides education, health, relief and social services for some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees - said the refugees must not be forgotten.
“It’s a bad situation which becomes worse, and for which we seem to get less resources rather than more resources, to address,” said Grandi. In Gaza, this means that UNRWA is unable to provide a single high nutrient biscuit to 200,000 children in schools.
In a statement to the conference on 4 December, Grandi said UNRWA’s general budget was 20 percent under funded while its emergency funds were only half of what was required, with US$133 million committed towards a US$246 million budget.
The agency said its work and the condition of the refugees had also been made harder by the broader political strife. Grandi said Israeli actions had hampered UNRWA’s work in the area and stifled economic activity.
“We understand the security situation very well and it is the right of Israel to implement measures to address these concerns, but we think if these measures become so operationally cumbersome and difficult to implement, it will be a problem for us to sustain the operation financially and to move around.”
UN criticises Israeli policy
Grandi also warned that Israeli policy, which includes economic sanctions, the closure of borders in Gaza and the checkpoints across the West Bank was counterproductive.
He asked that Israelis be mindful of the rights of the people and of the welfare of those who have no intention of committing any violence against the Israelis, because if these people are blocked from moving, from accessing employment, from earning a livelihood then their intentions may become really more aggressive than they would otherwise be, he said. “So we think that sometimes these measures are counter-productive rather than conducive to increased security.”
The Israeli view
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has said: "The Israeli government works on a daily basis to help UNRWA fulfil its mandate and allows the entrance of humanitarian goods into Gaza. However, one must keep in mind that Gaza is controlled by an enemy entity, a terror group, Hamas, which continues to fire rockets and attacks the crossing points.”
And on Israel’s contribution to UN finances, a recent ministry statement said: “While UNRWA's budget is not directly related to Israel, Israel does contribute to the UN budget, and in this way contributes to UNRWA."
On the humanitarian issue, an unnamed Israeli security official (Israeli policy is not to routinely disclose the names of such officials) said: "While steps are taken for the security of the Israeli population, Israel works to prevent a humanitarian crisis."
UNRWA says over 80,000 civilians in Gaza have lost their jobs in recent months and therefore rely on humanitarian aid.
The economic sanctions are seen to be creating poverty and a reliance on help, which would not be necessary if people were allowed the access to get to work and therefore rely on themselves.
The situation has been exacerbated by the internal politics of the Palestinians.
Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
|UNRWA says the closure of borders in Gaza and the checkpoints across the West Bank are hampering their efforts to deliver aid|
Grandi described the split between the West Bank and Gaza as leading to disillusionment within the Palestinian people.
“There’s a political problem with the rift between Hamas and Fatah which affects people in Gaza, in particular through the intermittent episodes of violence. There are multiple layers of crisis that are worsening; there is a humanitarian crisis but more serious I think, even in Gaza, is an economic and institutional crisis which results in the progressive disillusionment of civil society. This is dangerous: it can lead to radicalisation. It can only play into the hands of those that have a negative agenda. Despair does not push people in the right direction.”
UNRWA was set up in 1948 to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. It has become the largest operational agency of the UN and provides support to the displaced now living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.