UNRWA Crisis: Beyond Dollars and Cents

Zaha Hassan, Palestine Square | Institute for Palestine Studies, August 3, 2018

“Continuing services to refugees is a right, not a handout.”

This was the message last week of one of the thousands in Gaza who came out to protest the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) decision to not renew 154 employment contracts in the occupied Palestinian territory. Despite UNRWA’s best efforts, it has not been able to make up its current $250 million budget shortfall resulting from the U.S. decision to slash its contributions to the refugee agency.

Almost 12,500 Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on an UNRWA paycheck, which in many cases helps sustain more than just the nuclear family in the enclave where the unemployment rate is over 40%. It is unclear whether there will be enough funding for the 262,000 children in Gaza’s UNRWA schools to return to their classrooms this academic year.

The existential threat facing UNRWA is deliberate, and so are the dire consequences for the 5.3 million registered refugees it serves. President Donald Trump and his Middle East Team headed by advisor, Jared Kushner, have latched onto the idea that humanitarian relief may be used as leverage to force the Palestinian leadership back to a negotiating table set by Israel. Leaked details of the Kushner-crafted peace plan indicate that it is nothing more than a souped up, donor-infused version of the status quo that Israel seeks to have legitimated with the signature of President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader has infuriated the Administration by refusing to engage with it on these terms and so the Administration—along with the Republican-controlled Congress—has been tightening the financial noose around Palestinians.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | UNRWA and the Refugees: A Difficult but Lasting Marriage]

The idea of weaponizing humanitarian assistance provided to Palestinians is not new but it has never before found the currency it now has in the White House. Of late, right-wing think tanks, pro-“Greater Israel” Washington lobby groups and the “no daylight between Israel and the U.S.” politicians have been peddling the fiction that humanitarian relief to Palestinian refugees has been growing by leaps and bonds. They argue that aid money that maintains the camp infrastructure and enables the provision of essential services and work opportunities perpetuates refugeehood.

Of course, no Palestinian, or any other person for that matter, chooses to live as a stateless person in the squalor of a refugee camp dependent on food aid. The plight of Palestinian refugees is a result of a concerted effort by pre-state Zionist leaders and successive Israeli governments to avoid reaching a political solution based on international law and precedent. One need only look back on the remarks of Abba Eban, Israel’s representative to the UN, during the debate over whether the UN ought to accept Israel’s twice-rejected application for UN membership. Eban, though loathe to definitively state that Israel would permit the return of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees to their homes, promised that Israel would take no action “inconsistent with the resolutions of the [UN General] Assembly and the Security Council.” Furthermore, he stated that the refugee issue could only be solved within the United Nations and that acceptance of Israel as a member would make it easier to reach the desired political solution. He argued, however, that the timing for refugee return was premature; a peace agreement between Israel and the Arab states was required first so that borders could be established and repatriation could be implemented.

Seventy years and two peace agreements between Israel and two of its Arab neighbors later, Israel has neither defined its borders nor allowed a single Palestinian refugee to return home. Palestinian refugeehood started with Israel’s depopulation of 418 Palestinian villages, expelling approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, and it will only end when Israel is compelled to implement repatriation and reparations. This is what the international community required of Israel in 1949 as a condition for its admittance as a member of the UN.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Between Occupier and Occupied: UNRWA in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip]

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A Vengeful and Shortsighted Act

Palestinians waiting to cross the border to Egypt in May. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)

New York Times Editorial, September 1, 2018

The Trump administration has offered various explanations for cutting aid to the Palestinians and stopping all contributions to the United Nations agency that supports five million Palestinian refugees: They need to learn to help themselves. Other Arabs should pay. Most of them are not really refugees and should stop claiming a right to return to what is now Israel. This will push them to the negotiating table. They’re not grateful enough.

These excuses range from petty to downright dangerous. Does Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who is supposed to be preparing an Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century,” really believe that slashing assistance to the Palestinians and stripping them of their status as refugees will compel them to accept whatever one-sided plan he cooks up or teach them to show proper respect for Mr. Trump?

Most important, does Mr. Trump understand or care that his administration has effectively abandoned the critical role his predecessors have tried to fulfill as peace brokers in the Middle East, while remaining Israel’s major friend and ally? Does he recognize that depriving Palestinians of any hope of outside mediation or support, and making their lives more miserable, could well lead to another round of violence?

The decision to stop all funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, formally announced on Friday, goes far beyond questions of respect or negotiating tactics. It affects an agency that provides critical schooling, health, food and other services for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The United States finances about a third of the budget, or about $350 million a year. The planned cut to the agency, moreover, follows an announcement last week that the State Department is cutting $200 million in other aid to Palestinians in the West Bank, primarily intended for development and infrastructure projects.

The administration is also demanding a steep reduction in the number of Palestinians recognized as refugees, depriving them of any claim of a right to return, among the chief questions past administrations have sought to resolve through diplomacy.

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Wishing away Palestinian refugees: End of US’ UNRWA aid explained

‘Doomsday scenario’ could unfold unless Palestinian agency replaces US funding within 30 days, spokesperson says.

Al Jazeera, 01 Sep 2018

The UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) has called the decision by the Trump administration to no longer commit funding “deeply regrettable” and “shocking”.

Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Works and Agency, said on Saturday Friday’s move would affect “millions of people” including “some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised on this planet”.

For nearly 70 years, UNRWA has provided lifesaving assistance to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, as well as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

But over the past year, the US government has made it increasingly clear it considers the work the organisation does, and who it considers as refugees, to be an obstacle in the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In January, a month after President Donald Trump sparked widespread international condemnation by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the White House decided to cut $65m in aid to UNRWA.

It was later reported that the Trump administration had withheld about $305m in funding, and only delivered $60m to UNRWA.

UNRWA told Al Jazeera it spent the next eight months scrambling for financial assistance, and was only able to continue operating after large contributions were raised by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which donated $150m between them.

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July 22, 2018
Community Immigration Law Center Presentation

1:00 pm
First Unitarian Society
900 University Bay Drive, Madison

First Unitarian Society and Congregation Shaarei Shamayim invite you to attend a program on July 22 at FUS to learn how you can help members of our Madison community who have immigration difficulties.

Lawyers from the Community Immigration Law Center, which operates a free clinic for people in need, will be our guest speakers. There are all kinds of tasks volunteers can help with so that the attorneys are freed up to serve more clients. A light lunch will be served at 12:30 PM for program participants.

Supreme Court Upholds Muslim Ban

Statement from AAI Executive Director Maya Berry on the Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Hawai’i, June 26, 2018

Washington, DC — Today, Arab American Institute Executive Director Maya Berry released the following statement in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Muslim Ban case:

“Along ideological lines, the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s xenophobic Muslim Ban that discriminates against individuals predominantly because of their Muslim faith or national origin. A vast majority of those impacted by the ban are Muslim, with four Arab countries included in those singled out. This policy is not rationally related to national security interests and will continue to tear families apart while undermining America’s standing in the world.

The Muslim Ban was implemented among an unprecedented amount of evidence of a policy enacted to codify the religious animus of the Trump administration. As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump stated, “I think Islam hates us… we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States…” He called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Once in office, President Trump added security concerns as a mere pretext for bigotry, noting that “People were so upset when I used the word Muslim. Oh, you can’t use the word Muslim… I’m talking territory instead of Muslim. The majority’s unwillingness to recognize this reality renders those justices complicit in the damage this policy will continue to inflict on immigrant communities in this country.

President Trump justified his Muslim Ban by stating that Roosevelt “did the same thing” regarding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As the dissent notes, this holding will echo Korematsu v. United States as a standard of judicial injustice history will not soon forget. Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the Court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one “gravely wrong” decision with another.” The U.S. Government formally apologized for the injustice of interning Japanese Americans 46 year after that horrific episode. Arab American and American Muslim communities should not be victimized by a repetition of history, subjected to discrimination without apology or consequence while the Government slowly finds its moral compass.

Instead of neutral arbiters upholding fundamental rights, today’s decision seems to have been reached by politicians in robes. The majority bought President Trump’s bigotry hook, line, and sinker. This decision undermines both the world’s confidence in America, and America’s confidence in our highest court.

With this ruling, the majority has given a blank check to President Trump and future presidents to discriminate simply by claiming national security justifications. Today we need Congress, as a coequal branch of government, to act to affirm the equal dignity of all, regardless of religion or national origin. In spite of this decision, AAI will continue work tirelessly with both the legislative and judicial branches toward the goal of ensuring that all Americans, as well as guests in our country, are free from government-sponsored discrimination.”

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Why I March in Gaza

Palestinian demonstrators on a sand plateau during clashes with Israeli forces last Friday east of Gaza City. Residents of Gaza are mounting a series of protests called the Great Return March. (Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Fadi Abu Shammalah, New York Times, April 27, 2018

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Early in the morning on March 30, my 7-year-old son, Ali, saw me preparing to leave the house. This was unusual for our Friday routine.

“Where are you going, Dad?”

“To the border. To participate in the Great Return March.”

The Great Return March is the name that has been given to 45 days of protest along the border between Gaza and Israel. It began on March 30, Land Day, which commemorates the 1976 killings of six Palestinians inside Israel who had been protesting land confiscations, and ends on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war that lead to the creation of Israel.

“Can I come with you?” Ali pleaded. I told him it was too dangerous. If Israeli military warnings were any indication, the risk that unarmed protesters might be shot by Israeli snipers was too high. “Why are you going if you might get killed?” Ali pressed me.

His question stayed with me as I went to the border encampment in eastern Khan Younis, the southern Gaza town where I live. It remained with me on the following Fridays as I continued to participate in the march activities, and it lingers with me now.

I cherish my life. I am the father of three precious children (Ali has a 4-year-old brother, Karam, and a newborn baby brother, Adam), and I’m married to a woman I consider my soul mate. And my fears were borne out: 39 protesters have been killed since the march began, many by sniper fire, including a 15-year-old last week and two other children on April 6. Israel is refusing to return the bodies of two of those slain. Continue reading

May 2, 2018
Memorializing 70 Years of Occupation

UW-Madison Students for Justice in Palestine

Rescheduled from April 27. Stop by to see UW SJP’s display memorializing 70 years of occupation and devastation that stills continues today in Palestine. We will be handing out literature and you can find out how you can get involved in the cause. Hope to see you all there!

Samira Remedial Education

GAZA KIDS NEED YOUR HELP!

Barb Olson, Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, March 9, 2018

For the third time, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) is partnering with the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice to fund the Samira Remedial Education Project in Rafah. Organized by the Rafah branch of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), this project employs special education teachers and a social worker to provide psycho-social support to 180 economically disadvantaged and learning-disabled children age six to twelve and their families.

The Gaza Strip, turned by Israel’s siege into the world’s largest open-air prison, is already one of the poorest and most crowded places on earth. The educational system is overcrowded, unstable and inconsistent. Sanitation, water and electrical services barely function. Public services are weak and underfunded, especially those serving mainly women and children. The recent US cuts to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) threaten to turn crisis into catastrophe. Three-quarters of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are refugees dependent on the schools, hospitals and food distributions of UNRWA just to survive. In addition, Gaza is subjected to frequent Israeli military land and sea attacks and has not recovered from the last decade’s three full-scale bombardments and invasions. Every one of the close to 1 million children in Gaza knows someone who was killed, injured or made homeless.

Gaza Community Mental Health Program

Children have been affected more than others because every aspect of their lives, especially the education system, has been repeatedly disrupted if not destroyed. Psychologically, the negative impact on children is enormous: nightmares, racing thoughts, nail-biting, panic attacks, uncontrolled urination, violent behavior and hyperactivity are common symptoms. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of all children in Gaza are so severely affected that they require some form of structured psycho-social intervention.

For the past couple of years, the Samira Remedial Education Project has been successfully intervening to develop the children’s skills and increase their ability to learn (especially reading, writing and mathematics); to support them psychologically and socially and rebuild their confidence; to implement scientific solutions to learning disabilities and reduce violent and disruptive behavior; to train families to better support their children; and to create job opportunities for qualified professionals in this field. Field trips, a children’s library and activities such as theater, music, art and reading help the staff to understand the children and create a space for the children to express their feelings.

The total cost of this project for the current phase is $14,049. The Rachel Corrie Foundation has pledged $2,000, MRSCP will contribute $2,500 and aims to raise at least $5,500 more by June, 2018 so that the project can be fully funded by MECA. We need your help to meet this goal! Please make checks payable to MRSCP with the note “Samira”, and mail to:

    MRSCP
    P.O. Box 5214
    Madison, WI 53705

If you prefer to donate on line, you can do so through the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA).

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One woman tackles two of Gaza’s toughest challenges

We Are Not Numbers, February 23, 2018

A Gaza man with a SunBox

Two of the Gaza Strip’s most pressing challenges are a blockade-induced shortage of both electricity and building materials. And, in this conservative, patriarchal society, it’s a young, female engineer who is tackling both.

Twenty-four-year-old Majd al-Mashharawi, a 2016 graduate in civil engineering, first figured out how to turn ash and rubble—of which Gaza has a lot—into a material she calls “Green Cake” that can replace cement. Now, she is turning her attention to renewable energy technologies, starting with a solar kit named SunBox. Now in the piloting phase, SunBox is, she says, the first off-the-grid solar kit in Gaza.

“Gaza has an extreme shortage of electricity—receiving just three to six hours a day. But the entire Middle East suffers from a lack of sufficient electricity,” Mashharawi says. “This severely affects both quality of life and opportunity for economic growth. But the region has a resource that can be harnessed—an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, making solar energy an ideal source of electricity production.”

Mashharawi researched solar options in use in Africa and India, where electricity outages also are common. However, she ended up turning to China for the most applicable solution. Her SunBox product is a small solar energy collection kit she imports, modifies to accommodate local electrical outlets and voltage and sells for US$355—a price her market research shows is affordable to most households. (She hopes to partner with microfinance businesses for those families who need to pay in installments.) The kit generates 1,000 watts of electricity—enough to power four lamps, two laptops, two phones, an internet router and a TV/fan/small refrigerator for a full day, before needing a “refresh” (using either the sun or the electrical grid, when available).

Mashharawi (far right) using a SunBox to power a light and laptop

If the Gaza launch goes well, Mashharawi is already dreaming of expanding into other markets—West Bank refugee camps, Syrians in Jordan and off-grid Bedouin communities throughout the Middle East (perhaps the largest of the populations, at an estimated 3.2 million).

Early inspiration

Mashharawi attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her 11th grade math teacher.

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Book talk: “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom”

with Norman Finkelstein

Monday, March 12, 2018 12:00 p.m CDT
Livestream Here

The Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated places in the world. More than two-thirds of its inhabitants are refugees, and more than half are under eighteen years of age. Since 2004, Israel has launched eight devastating “operations” against Gaza’s largely defenseless population. Thousands have perished, and tens of thousands have been left homeless. In the meantime, Israel has subjected Gaza to a merciless illegal blockade.

Based on scores of human rights reports, Norman G. Finkelstein’s new book presents a meticulously researched inquest into Gaza’s martyrdom. He shows that although Israel has justified its assaults in the name of self-defense, in fact these actions constituted flagrant violations of international law.

Author Bio
Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate from the Princeton University Department of Politics. His many books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Human Suffering and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, have been translated into fifty foreign editions. He is a frequent lecturer and commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflict.