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They’re at it again: cutting aid to Palestinian refugees

They’re at it again: cutting aid to Palestinian refugees

Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Occupying Power is supposed to provide for the health, education, security and nutrition of the residents of an occupied area. Who does it in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip where more than 47 percent of the population lives below the poverty line?

It isn’t the occupying power—Israel. Most of it is done by the UN, voluntary agencies and the Palestinian Authority. And now some quarters are calling for cuts in donations to the UN, especially to UNRWA.

The World Bank estimates that international donors helped sustain social service delivery—education and medical care—and support the poor through food, cash support and job creation. Without these programs of, among others, UNRWA, UNICEF and the World Food Program, an additional 250,000 persons would have fallen below the subsistence poverty line, 35 percent above the current level. Nevertheless, the World Bank reports that the quality and coverage of basic social services are under severe stress. The past four years, says the Bank, exemplify how little donor assistance can achieve in the absence of a positive policy environment. While donor disbursements doubled to almost $1 billion a year, real personal incomes fell by almost 40 percent.

The Occupying Power does little to ease the conditions by sealing external borders, making it difficult for donors to bring in food and medicines and by creating internal barriers with closures, checkpoints, curfews, a complex system of permits and prevention of travel to work or school. These same barriers often prevent the export of Palestinian goods and delay the transport of fragile agricultural products thus cutting further the already declining incomes.

The destruction of orchards and farms by Israeli military forces has contributed to the food insecurity in Gaza. For example, more than 50 percent of the agricultural land near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza has been destroyed in the past four years. This is not the first place or first time this has happened in the Occupied Territories and is directly counter to the Geneva Convention, Protocol II of 8 June 1977. Article 14 says:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, render useless…objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian populations, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports: “The dense network of over 700 checkpoints, road blocks and other movement restrictions established by Israel as a means of protecting its civilians from attacks following the outbreak of the conflict in 2000, remains in place, preventing movement inside the West Bank and Gaza. This internal ‘closure’ regime is accompanied by measures preventing Palestinian food and people from leaving the occupied Palestinian territory.

At the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, the daily average of Palestinian workers from West Bank and Gaza entering Israel stood at 116,000. By 2004, this number had fallen to 37,700 cutting family disposable income drastically, not replaced by incomes from export of goods or services or by local employment. Real incomes would have fallen even more if it were not for the cushion provided by donor assistance.

The Gaza Strip is already completely enclosed, and Israel continues to build a Barrier inside the West Bank, which, in July, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) deemed illegal.” A proposed Israel disengagement from Gaza and a small area of northern West Bank must be accompanied by a rolling back of Israel’s closure policy and a stronger Palestinian commitment to reform to bring the Palestinian economy out of its current stagnation, says the World Bank.

Donors build, occupiers destroy

In addition to the artificial barriers it creates, the Occupying Power destroys houses, roads, schools and clinics often built with donor money and the donors rebuild these homes, roads, schools and clinics without getting any funds for repair or reconstruction from the Occupier. The Occupier is even asking donors to pay for the building of a parallel road system so that Palestinians don’t have to use the same roads as Israelis, mainly colonists.

Donors build, the occupier destroys and the donor rebuilds. So where does the money go? It goes to support and sustain the occupation relieving Israel of a major financial burden.

And even with this financial saving to the occupier, there are renewed calls in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere in the world to cut the funding of UNRWA which provides much of the aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially through its schools, its health centers, schools and welfare projects.

With almost half the population living below the poverty line and 16 percent, or 600,000 people mired in deep poverty and unable to make ends meet, says the World Bank, donor-financed humanitarian expenditures have become an essential part of the Palestinian social safety net in the West Bank and Gaza. In 2003, donor contributions equivalent to $264 million were devoted to humanitarian and other emergency expenditures, and emerging 2004 figures look comparable. For 2005, the Palestinian Authority’s Medium Term Development Plan is seeking between $251 and $267 million to ensure that an adequate safety net is provided to the poorest and most vulnerable. This is in addition to aid from NGOs and international organizations.

In this context, humanitarian agencies including Save the Children, CARE, Oxfam, UNRWA, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, etc. are appealing for more than $300 million to maintain emergency assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for 2005.

OCHA says the short to medium term prospects for the West Bank and Gaza look bleak. “While occupation and closure are still in place, humanitarian agencies’ impact on the situation can only be limited…Israel, as the occupying power, has the obligation to provide for the welfare of the Palestinian population but fails to do so; and the advisory opinion issued by the ICJ on the Barrier in July 2004 is likely to create dilemmas for humanitarian agencies in 2005, as agencies should seek to assist the Palestinians without inadvertently promoting demographic changes or helping to maintain the illegal situation created by the Barrier” which cuts off Palestinians from the farming land, from schools and from health care facilities.

UNRWA carries on

Of the some $300 million, UNRWA has the largest needs of $183 million followed by WFP and UNICEF. WHO is appealing for an additional $4.7 million but much of its work for Palestinian refugees is through UNRWA.

Through its 639 elementary and junior secondary schools, 122 health centers and other installations, UNRWA carries out a health, education and welfare program for 4 million Palestinian refugees of whom 1.5 million are in the West Bank and Gaza. If there were no emergencies, this alone would cost $350 million a year for the five fields.

But because of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Territories, UNRWA needs an additional $185 million. This includes finding alternate housing for more than 13,500 whose homes were destroyed in the first 11 months of 2004; repairing thousands of other homes plus water, sewage power and road networks; providing food for 94,294 households in the West Bank and 132,000 (including a small number of non-refugee families under siege or have had their homes demolished) in Gaza, repairing UNRWA’s own installations; providing temporary work for 864,489 job days in West Bank and almost 2 million job days in Gaza; giving additional medical care; and organizing remedial and distance learning courses for children. (For further information on UNRWA’s emergency program in the Occupied Territories see, and BADIL’s quarterly magazine al-Majdal, Issue No. 20 (December 2003); March 2004, Issue No. 21; and September 2004, Issue No. 23.)

In addition to replacing the housing for thousands, UNRWA has to replace household goods such as kitchen utensils, clothing and bedding. UNRWA has built new homes for refugees but in the meantime it provides tents or rent for new apartments as part of its cash and in-kind grants to refugees. This is something else an occupier should do. Protocol I of the Geneva Convention, 8 June 1977 says that the occupying power is to ensure the provision of clothing, bedding, means of shelter, other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population.

UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Peter Hansen reports that the 2004 emergency budget of $193 million was not even half funded. In 2005, the Agency is asking for less than last year simply because it has moved a number of activities in health, education and psycho-social support into its General fund. This is a recognition of the long-term nature of the emergency.

Mr. Hansen says that closures, curfews and the wall increasingly disrupt services and prevents economic activity; violent military incursions destroy lives, property and livelihoods. “Despite and overwhelming desire to be economically productive and self-sufficient, the refugee population cannot, under current conditions, support itself, or rebuild its communities,” he says. 

Summary of UNRWA’s Emergency Financial Requirements 2005 (US$)

West Bank
Gaza Strip
Cash, in-kind aid*
Other costs

*Cash to rent alternate housing, provide kitchen kits, bedding, etc.
Some statistics to ponder
· 11 UNRWA staff members have been killed since September 2000
· home demolitions in Gaza went up from 15 a month in 2002 to 77 a month in 2004
· since September 2000, the number of homes destroyed in Gaza was 2,389 making 22,963 persons homeless
· repairs in Rafah to water pipes and installations cost $250,000 every six months
· most Gazans studying in the West Bank have not seen families for 4 years
· ratio of imports to exports from Israel to Gaza was 3:1 in January 2004 rising to 12:1 in June thus a significant transfer of income out of Gaza
· total income from Israel for Gaza workers reduced from $7.4 million a day in January to $l million a day in July
· unemployment is 36.8 per cent in Gaza and 22.3 per cent in West Bank
· 36 per cent of refugees, 31 per cent non-refugees live under the poverty line
· 38 per cent had insecure sources of food, another 26 were vulnerable to food
insecurity rising to 61 percent in the Hebron area and 90 per cent in the
Tubas district of West Bank and 83 per cent in Jabalia Camp, Gaza
· From June 2002 to February 2004, Hebron (West Bank) was under curfew 40 per cent of the time, Nablus 32 per cent, Tulkarem 31 per cent, Jenin 26 per cent, Bethlehem 18 per cent, Ramallah 17 per cent and Qalqilya 15 per cent.