Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,June/July 2019, pp. 20-21
Gaza on the Ground
By Mohammed Omer
THE HUMANITARIAN NEEDS OF MORE THAN 2 MILLION PEOPLE in Gaza do not seem to interest international media, let alone make headlines. Unless it is actual bloodshed, any news of Gaza, with only a few exceptions, steers clear of reporting on the daily suffering of its people.
While sparsely reported, the situation is worsening. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) announced its fears that some 1 million Palestinians in Gaza—half of the territory’s population—“may not have enough food” in June. “This warning drops more salt on our deep wounds” said 68-year-old Hajjah Fathiah Oudeh, whose family depends on the minimal amounts of rice, flour, lentils, cooking oil, and powdered milk she receives from UNRWA. “How do you explain to a child that there is no bread to fill his stomach?”
UNRWA, which is responsible for providing humanitarian relief to 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, warned that the agency must secure at least $60 million in emergency funding in the next month or a million Gazans relying on food aid will be at risk.
ABJECT POOR, ABSOLUTE POOR
The U.N. agency declared that 620,000 of the one million Gazans who are dependent on food aid are living in abject poverty. The agency defines them as “those who cannot cover their basic food needs and who have to survive” on about $1.60 per day. The remaining 390,000 are “absolute poor,” surviving on about $3.50 per day. Without food assistance from UNRWA, the agency says these Gazans “cannot get through their day.”
UNRWA, funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support, has been outpaced by the growth in population needs. From fewer than 80,000 Palestine refugees receiving UNRWA social assistance in Gaza in the year 2000, there are now more than a million people relying on emergency food assistance.
“This is a near 10-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, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza.
The U.N. also notes the death of 195 Palestinians, including 14 students from UNRWA schools, and the long-lasting physical and psychological injuries of 29,000 people during the year-long demonstrations known as the Great March of Return. These events come on the heels of three devastating conflicts in Gaza since 2009, which resulted in at least 3,790 deaths and more than 17,000 injuries combined.
Today, with an unemployment rate of more than 53 percent among Gaza’s population, and with more than a million people dependent on the quarterly UNRWA food handouts, it is mostly preventive humanitarian action of U.N. agencies, including UNRWA, and remittances from abroad that have held Gaza back from the edge of total collapse. Already battered by joblessness, the Palestinian economy will come under additional strain, as the World Bank predicts a financing gap that could exceed $1 billion in 2019.
The presence of the U.N. is one of few stabilizing elements in a complex environment in Gaza, but the dwindling of resources is expected to fuel demonstrations and an escalation of confrontations in the coming weeks.
SHORTFALLS OF FUNDING
The U.N. reported at the end of 2018 that despite a rise in humanitarian needs across the occupied Palestinian territory, funding levels for humanitarian interventions declined significantly: only $221 million had been received, compared to the $540 million requested in the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan. In 2017 a U.N. report predicted that Gaza would be unlivable by the year 2020.
On a slightly positive note, the U.N. in Gaza was able to offer work for a few thousand people. A 42-year-old Palestine refugee Tahani Ali, who lives with her seven-member family in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, received three-months’ work in a strawberry field as part of a cash-for-work program. “I am ready to work on any farm and hope I will find more opportunity for ongoing support for my family,” she said, noting that when the strawberry fields have been harvested in two months she will be unemployed and her family will be, among many others, once again vulnerable to hunger and instability.
Unless the international community responds to the dire humanitarian needs in Gaza, a new security concern could erupt. Then it would be another revolution of hungry masses, trapped in abject desperation. But as Hajjah Fathiah Oudeh says, “Waiting for a crisis to happen is not an option—food security should be a concern for everyone. Don’t humiliate us further,” she adds. “There should be no reason on earth why we have to explain to our kids that they should go hungry to bed.”
Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports regularly on the Gaza Strip. Follow him on Twitter: @MoGaza