More than 1 million people in Gaza are at risk of running out of food less than a year after the United States announced it would no longer contribute aid to Palestinians, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees said on Monday.
Palestinian refugees and many others who fled fighting when Israel was created in 1948 are reliant on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. Since its creation in 1949, the United Nations agency has provided aid to millions of registered refugees for basic services, including protection for 5.15 million, health care for 3.1 million and education for 526,000.
"At a time when Muslims around the world are observing the holy month of Ramadan, often characterized by the festive nature of its Iftars, in Gaza, more than half the population depends on food aid from the international community," the agency said in a statement. "Unless UNRWA secures at least an additional US$60 million by June, our ability to continue providing food to more than 1 million Palestine refugees in Gaza ... will be severely challenged."
At the start of 2019, the agency said in an emergency appeal that it needed US$1.2 billion to deliver core services and life-saving humanitarian aid to 5.4 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East. It said 620,310 were "abject poor" — those who cannot cover their basic food needs and have to survive on about US$1.74 a day — and 389,680 were "absolute poor" — those who must survive on about US$3.87 a day.
In August 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, which is unreservedly pro-Israel in its public stance towards the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, announced it would cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in traditional aid to Palestinians, including any further contributions to UNRWA.
Despite saying that it was “deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially school children," the Trump administration called UNRWA an "irredeemably flawed operation" that should not receive U.S. aid but should get far more of its financial support from other nations. Trump has made similar criticisms about the finances of other international organizations, notably NATO's defenses.
In 2017, the United States was the largest single donor with a contribution of over US$157 million, followed by the European Union's US$113 million. Combined, the U.S. and E.U. contributions made up 43% of UNRWA's total core budget. UNRWA began 2018 with a shortfall of US$146 million, aggravated further by the U.S. cutoff in aid. Through fundraising, it had reduced the shortfall to US$64 million by last September.
Also in January, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took over as chairman of the Group of 77, an international organization representing a major bloc of U.N. votes. At the U.N. headquarters in New York, Abbas was given the reins of the G-77 — which was created in 1964 and now includes 134 mainly developing nations and China — from the outgoing chairman, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Abbas promised to uphold multilateralism, and he told reporters that the Palestinians, who have non-member U.N. observer status, will keep pushing to obtain full U.N. membership and a peaceful two-state solution to the prolonged Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since Palestine is not a full U.N. member, its turn in charge of the G-77 required passage of a special resolution from the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly last October. The resolution won overwhelming approval by a vote of 146-3 in which only three countries — Australia, Israel and the United States — were opposed. Fifteen countries abstained.
After the vote, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the Palestinians were “well-placed to take up the chairmanship of this important group” of 134 nations. “Palestine and its citizens have first-hand experience of some of the most challenging and dramatic global issues we face,” he said.
'Three years until the unlivable?'
The U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR, defines refugees as people who have been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence. Two-thirds of all refugees worldwide come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.
"A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group," it said. "Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries."
UNRWA has been funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, but the financial support has not kept up with the growth in needs, the agency said. Less than 80,000 Palestine refugees were receiving UNRWA social assistance in Gaza in 2000, it said, but today more than 1 million need emergency food assistance, without which they cannot get through their day.
“This is a near ten-fold increase caused by the blockade that led to the closure of Gaza and its disastrous impact on the local economy, the successive conflicts that razed entire neighborhoods and public infrastructure to the ground, and the ongoing internal Palestinian political crisis that started in 2007 with the arrival of Hamas to power in Gaza,” said Matthias Schmale, UNRWA's operations director in Gaza.
Earlier this month, Trump's son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, told a dinner hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the Palestinians had "gotten more aid than any group of people in history, and what we have to show for it is really not much at this point, unfortunately.”
Days later, a Washington Post fact-checking report found that Israel has received an average of US$3.5 billion a year for 66 years from just the United States, compared with the Palestinians receiving about US$1.7 billion a year from international donors. "Even if the Palestinian figure is undercounted somewhat — such as some UNWRA funding not recorded in these statistics — there’s little chance it can match the aid figure for Israel," the Post's Glenn Kessler wrote in his analysis.
In July 2017, a U.N. report concluded with a provocative question: "Gaza 2020: Three years until the unlivable?" Its answer: Immediate action was needed by all parties — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the militant Palestinian group Hamas and the international community — to provide sustainable development, reinvigorate Gaza's productive sectors, improve freedom of movement for people and goods, and show more respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
"Without such steps," it summed up, "Gaza will become more isolated and more desperate, the threat of a renewed, more devastating escalation will increase, and the prospects for intraPalestinian reconciliation will dwindle – and thus so will the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine."