- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Beach Distribution Center in Gaza City is sandwiched between the Al-Shati refugee camp on the north side and luxury hotels frequented by foreigners and wedding parties to the south.

It’s one of a dozen food distribution centers run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the humanitarian organization first set up for Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Despite its humanitarian mission, the agency finds itself squarely in the middle of the debate over Israeli-Palestinian relations and the future of the Trump administration’s much-anticipated comprehensive peace deal for the region.

Sand borders the road on both sides, typical of any small beach vacation town. But the sand here attracts no tourists, and the sea is filled with sewage.

At the distribution center, 43-year-old Gaza native Safi Yaghi oversees a massive operation packaging food for nearly 80,000 beneficiaries and has no doubt of the vital necessity of his work.

“I want to say that the refugees in general, whether employees or not, are completely relying on existence of UNRWA,” Mr. Yaghi said.

Born in Gaza, Mr. Yaghi has a degree in programming and analysis, but this temporary job with UNRWA is all he can manage to find. His assistant has a degree in astrophysics. They each make $700 to $750 a month by overseeing the unloading of trucks filled with nonperishable food items. Workers divide up rice, lentils, chickpeas and cooking oil for families.

The routine has endured for nearly 70 years.

UNRWA should remain in existence, according to the needs of refugees. As long as there is no state that can help them, it is performing as a state for these refugees,” he said.

UNRWA — and operations specifically in the Gaza Strip — faced an existential financial crisis this year when the Trump administration decided to provide only $60 million in funding for the agency, compared with approximately $350 million the previous year.

For the U.S. government, the cuts were meant as a way of imposing hard truths on Palestinians: that Washington would no longer shoulder the lion’s share of the financial burden for an institution seen as deeply flawed in both concept and execution. The U.N. agency, critics contend, provides special status for Palestinian refugees from all other displaced people in the world and implies that their descendants have an equal claim to international support and justice in any negotiated solution with Israel.

Even beyond funding and burden-sharing problems, “the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years — tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries — are simply unsustainable and have been in crisis mode for many years,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in August.

In Israel, the U.S. move was met with cautious optimism. Large swaths of Israeli society had always criticized UNRWA for perpetuating the refugee issue, teaching hate of Israel in their schools, and employing Hamas members or colluding with the terrorist organization.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S. funding cut, arguing that UNRWA is part of the problem, not the solution in seeking a durable peace with the Palestinians. He said the agency feeds Palestinian resentments and stokes unrealistic expectations.

The U.N. “created a unique institution 70 years ago not to absorb the refugees but to perpetuate them,” Mr. Netanyahu said after the U.S. funding cuts were announced. “The U.S. has done a very important thing by halting the financing for the refugee perpetuation agency known as UNRWA.”

Delicate status quo

But an abrupt and massive funding cut to UNRWA could pose a dire humanitarian situation and — in Gaza in particular — undermine a delicate security status quo.

In 2014, Hamas initiated a war against Israel with rocket barrages and terrorist tunnel infiltrations. The war ended in a cease-fire agreement that eased the Israeli blockade and allowed an increase in humanitarian assistance.

“I’m not saying that UNRWA is perfect — far from it,” retired Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, former spokesman for the Israeli military, said during a September conference call with reporters, but he said the alternatives from a security perspective seem much worse.

This fragile cease-fire has kept the two sides from all-out war despite seven months of Palestinians rioting at the border fence with Israel, with massive casualties on the Gaza side and Israelis suffering from rocket attacks and incendiary balloons and kites.

For Palestinians, the attacks on UNRWA was the second shock of the U.S. taking away what they say is a fundamental piece of their identity, following closely on the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

UNRWA’s work now aids the children, grandchildren, great-, and great-great-grandchildren of the original refugees who once lived in what is now the state of Israel. Today, more than 5 million Palestinian refugees use UNRWA services across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.

In an interview in his office in Gaza City, Matthias Schmale, director for UNRWA in Gaza, criticized the Trump administration for what he said was the politicizing of the UNRWA debate while acknowledging that more countries should share the funding load.

“The one argument I do accept from the Americans is there needs to be greater burden-sharing,” he said. “I don’t agree with the way they’ve done it. To cut food aid from one day to the next I think is irresponsible, and I don’t accept the politicization of their aid.”

After the American aid cut, Gulf Arab states and other international donors helped buoy the agency’s operations, particularly for food distribution, schools and medical clinics — into next year, he said.

“I think we’ll somehow muddle through to the end of the year,” he said in an interview in his offices in Gaza City. “Had we talked in January, I’d have told you we don’t know if we can pay salaries to all 9,000 teachers at the end of January. Here we are in October, our schools are open, our clinics are open, our core services are working.”

But UNRWA in January also appealed for $399 million in emergency funds for programs outside of its core mandate, including scaling up food delivery, temporary employment programs and additional medical and educational services. In July, the agency announced staffing cuts for those working under the emergency appeal, laying off 125 Palestinian staff members, ending contracts for 270 employees on Dec. 31 and cutting 570 employees to part-time status.

Furious, the Palestinian-UNRWA labor union staged protests and strikes. Demonstrators gathered outside of agency headquarters and hotels where international staff were working and threatened physical violence, according to reports.

“The [human resources] team was sitting somewhere, and a group of angry people showed up with police batons and chased them out …,” Mr. Schmale said. “They were fearing that something really terrible would happen to them.”

Muhamed Ghurra, speaking on behalf of the labor union for the UNRWA staff, said the main aggravation is with the Trump administration.

“Politically speaking, the U.S. is [applying pressure] because what UNRWA represents is a representation of the fact that we were displaced,” he said in an interview in Gaza City.

Many say the long-anticipated U.S. peace plan being fashioned by White House aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is trying to tilt the field after the embassy move and the UNRWA cuts.

Big employer

Seven decades since its creation, UNRWA now cares for an ever-growing population of refugees. The descendants of the original refugees number over 5 million. In Gaza, 1.3 million of a total population of 2 million — 65 percent — are registered refugees with UNRWA.

Gaza is the only field where the population keeps growing, and we have each year in our schools between [8,000] to 10,000 more children,” Mr. Schmale said.

In addition to providing core services of education, medical care and food distribution, UNRWA is also one of the biggest employers in an area where the jobless rate is 44 percent.

“We have 13,000 [local] staff,” Mr. Schmale said. “There are hundreds amongst them who have worked for more than 25, some cases 30 years. UNRWA is their professional life.”

More than their professional life, refugees are born and raised in the system. Mr. Ghurra, for example, was born a refugee, received medical treatment in UNRWA health clinics, received his education from UNRWA and has, for the past 22 years, taught English in UNRWA schools.

“There are employees and families that deserve the minimum of job security, food security and the right to work and the right to live,” Mr. Ghurra said.

Palestinians hope that solving the refugee issue will be accompanied by the resolution of all other “final status” issues that will establish their state and relieve their greatest frustration: the 12-year-blockade imposed by Israel when Hamas took over the strip in 2006 in a bloody clash with the Palestinian Authority.

But even coming to an agreement on what a just solution for the refugee issue is fraught with controversy.

During U.S.-led negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 2014, Mr. Netanyahu called the refugee “right of return” a “nonstarter,” that the influx of 5 million Palestinians would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

But the right of return “is the solution that is in all contracts,” said Dr. Reem Mousa, deputy head of the UNRWA Rimal Health Center in Gaza City.

“If we return to our home, there will be no more refugees, so the UNRWA can stop their services,” he said.

Dr. Mousa was born in Jerusalem, but her parents were made refugees in 1948 after fleeing the western coastal village of Ramle in Israel. She said she doesn’t hold a personal expectation to be able to return to the village of her family but added that she can’t give up hope.

“I hope, but I don’t think so …,” she said. “The only solution we’re thinking, or we’re believing in, is to return.”

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