by Tareq S. Hajjaj, published on Mondoweiss, June 24, 2023
Ahmad Ayyesh, 41 and a father of six children, is standing in a protest in the midday heat on Tuesday afternoon outside the large doors of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City. He joined the protest to raise his voice and demand that the agency’s financial crisis does not end the services he and his family depend on. UNRWA services, including healthcare, food, education, and jobs, mean life to most Palestinian refugees. Any changes to these services would disrupt the lives of over 1.2 million people in the Gaza Strip.
Ayyesh lost his hand in one of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, and he receives aid from the UN programs in Gaza as a Palestinian refugee. But the past few months were very hard on him and his family as the security net in Gaza is disappearing. Last month, his World Food Program aid was cut, and now, the other basic needs he and his family rely on from UNRWA are on the verge of ending.
“We are here to send a message to the oppressor world that supports Israel with weapons and funds Ukraine to tell them that our lives depend on UNRWA aid, and to tell UNRWA that we do not accept these conditions of receiving our rights. The world must uphold its responsibilities toward Palestinian refugees or help them return to their homes,” he said.
At the protest, a group of people held a fake coffin on their shoulders, describing it as the remains of the Palestinian refugees if UNRWA reduces its services. In the background, a speaker from the Joint Palestinian Refugees Committee in Gaza called on the international community that established the UN to serve the refugees to meet their responsibilities.
The protests in Gaza Strip came after months of UN financial crises, which have already impacted Palestinians. But the families protesting this week in front of UNRWA refuse to accept such cuts as their basic needs and livelihood depend on it. Their right to live is not negotiable, they say.
Critical year for Palestinian refugees
UNRWA was established in 1949 by the General Assembly of the United Nations to help and protect Palestinian refugees who resulted from the Nakba until a fair solution to their case could be reached. Today, over six million Palestinian refugees are registered with the agency.
As the crowd stood outside UNRWA doors in Gaza City demanding answers, UNRWA itself has been raising the alarm about its financial crisis and has been seeking funds from its donors, but it says that they have been told funds will be reduced or cut off entirely.
“The financial crisis facing UNRWA is deep and complex. It has been suffering from these issues for many years, but this year is the most dangerous. UNRWA will have no funds to serve Palestinian refugees after August,” Adnan Abu Hassna, the UNRWA representative in Gaza, told Mondoweiss.
Abu Hassna warned that all UNRWA services will be stopped by the beginning of September if they do not get the necessary funds. This will apply to all UNRWA programs, not only in Gaza, but in all the areas the agency works, including Gaza and the West Bank inside Palestine, as well as refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
In Gaza, UNRWA takes the place of the government when it comes to Palestinian refugees, and all the services that the refugees and their families receive are offered through the agency.
“UNRWA has received 57% of the total funds it needs, if we do not get the remaining funds soon, we will be no longer able to offer any of our services,” Abu Hassna warned.
UNRWA partly explains its funding crisis due to other recent crises that donor nations have responded to, such as the war in Ukraine, where many countries have diverted aid.
“The Ukrainian crisis caused a global rise in food prices and other basic human needs. Donors redirect their funds to Ukraine instead of UNRWA. Global inflation is one of the reasons too,” Abu Hassna explains. But another profound reason for the reduced support to UNRWA is that some donor countries have informed UNRWA that they will be stopping their funding this year and moving forward. Abu Hassna declined to comment on which donor countries these are as the agency is still in negotiations and hopes to convince them to reconsider.
The refugee population is growing each year. A community that started at 800,000 Palestinians in 1948 has now grown to 6 million refugees that UNRWA is obliged to support.
“The number of Palestinian refugees increases, so their needs increase as well. But UNRWA’s funds do not increase to meet their needs. This can be seen in a school class with 50 students or the congestion in UNRWA medical centers,” Abu Hassna said.
The crisis on the ground
UNRWA runs 22 medical centers and 278 schools in Gaza, alongside several programs in human rights education, university scholarships, vocational training, and teacher training.
In the past, UNRWA would immediately hire a new employee whenever any of the current staff retired. But since 2018, this policy is changed due to financial pressure. Now, over 1,500 employees in Gaza UNRWA’s facilities work on daily contracts, meaning no career prospects. “This gives the employees feelings of instability which badly impact their work, especially for teachers,” Mohammed Shwideh, the secretary of the UNRWA Staff Union, told Mondoweiss.
Shwideh explained that in 2018 UNRWA’s policy also changed so that they would no longer hire refugees in Gaza, which has emerged as a critical social issue. The most impacted sector is the educational system. “We start some school years not knowing which teachers will teach at the schools that need them. These conditions harm the development of the students,” he said.
It’s not just about teachers. Since 2018, UNRWA has also not hired any janitorial employees in UNRWA schools to fill openings. This has caused a critical issue for students, says Shwideh.
“Over 480 janitorial positions in Gaza schools are not occupied. The students handle the jobs and clean their classes and schools, but there are some other duties that students cannot do. And this is happening at a time when critical diseases like COVID-19 have hardly ended.”
A political issue
Palestinian refugees consider UNRWA to be the greatest witness to their history and case for justice. And for Palestinians, the only fair solution to their plight is returning home.
“Shrinking UNRWA and its work with Palestinian refugees is political in the first place. Israel is trying to obliterate the Palestinian right of return and refugees’ rights, and UNRWA is the only witness to the Palestinian diaspora,” Shwideh said.
Shwideh says UNRWA is under tremendous political pressure beyond even the financial crisis. All of which are trying to undermine the Palestinian case for justice.
This pressure has included efforts to change the Palestinian curriculum for students and attempts to strip refugees of their cause and nationality. “When all these attempts failed, and they could not convince the students with anything rather than the truth, Israel has now focused on ending all the UNRWA services for Palestinian refugees to accomplish their goal,” he said.
Shwideh explained that the financial shortage started in 2018, coinciding with the first time the United States cut funding to UNRWA. Now, U.S. funding stands at $150 million, down from $350 million where it once stood. There has also been an ongoing effort to cut U.S. funding to the agency in Congress, including a bill to eliminate all aid.
It’s not only financial pressure that increased in 2018, but also that year the mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat declared his intention to shut UNRWA’s office in Jerusalem due to it being a “political organization” and accused it of teaching “terror” in the seven schools affiliated to UNRWA in East Jerusalem.
This pressure campaign has also included outside international organizations who monitor UNRWA staff on social media and write malicious reports against them. “Many of our colleges went to investigation due to these reports,” Shwideh says.
In the end, Shwideh says these are all tactics to change the subject from Palestinian dispossession.
“Preventing a Palestinian teacher or student from raising the Palestinian flag out of fear of losing funding will drive the Palestinian refugees away from their original cause. The refugees know they are only temporary refugees in Gaza until they return to their homes, but Israel wants the world to forget this fact.”
*Featured Image: Palestinians hold food ration bags turned into protest signs during a rally outside the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in Gaza City on June 20, 2023. (Photo: Youssef Abu Watfa/APA Images)