jump to navigation

What I learned from UNRWA November 20, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in Economics, Politics.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

On Tuesday, I got the chance to see John Ging speak. He is the Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates the UN’s humanitarian mission in Gaza. His 2010 budget is $450 million and he has a staff of 10,000. Here is a summary of what he said:

After the flotilla incident, Israel changed its Gaza blockade from a list of approved items to a list of prohibited items making almost all general consumer goods available for purchase in shops. The people of Gaza were already able to get these goods, but they acquired them on the black market after they had been smuggled through the tunnels on Gaza’s Egyptian border. Anything that goes through these tunnels is taxed by Hamas agents, and the criminal traffickers are able to extract a higher price than market value in return for their services. As a result, Mr. Ging said this policy shift was extremely wise because it prevents Hamas and these traffickers from profiting off this illegal commercial activity, while it improves the access and reliability of these goods for regular Palestinians living within Gaza. It also enriches the legitimate business enterprises operating in Gaza to provide these goods. Ging said since this policy shift there has been an 80% reduction in commercial activity through tunnels.

Still, Ging reported that 80% of Gaza’s population is dependent on food aid, and they cue for rationing daily. This food comes from the UN. 95% of the water in Gaza is undrinkable, but construction of new water facilities is prevented under the construction limitations imposed under the blockade. 84,000 m3 of raw partially treated sewage gets dumped into the Mediterranean Sea every day!

Currently Gaza’s schools operate a double shift daily (one set of students attends 8am-2pm, then another attends from 3pm-9pm) Still, however, its schools are jam-packed and unable to accommodate everyone who wants to enroll. One reason there aren’t more schools are the construction limitations under the blockade. UNWRA builds schools, but its pace cannot keep up with the demand for school facilities.

Ging understands the legitimate security concerns Israel has in relation to Gaza. He advocated for a legal and secure route for cement and building materials to enter Gaza. For example, he mentioned an idea that is often floated whereby a secure sea-lane would be established between Ashdod port and Gaza port. Israeli customs agents could thoroughly inspect the goods, and IDF ships could escort the commercial boats from Ashdod to Gaza after their inspection.

Ging also mentioned the Summer Games Program, which is a 10 week summer program meant to fill the void of boredom and frustration that many students in Gaza feel during their two and half month break from school. The kids participate in camp-like games and activities, and apparently the beach program is especially popular. This past year 250,000 participated. In comparison, Ging estimates that about 14,000 students spent their summer months in militant training camps. Not too long ago, said Ging, around 100,000 kids used to attend Hamas’ militant training programs, and he was proud this number has been reduced so substantially. Still, it is 14,000 too high. Mr. Ging was frustrated that the Summer Games Program could not expand further because of a lack of resources. They have to turn kids away from the program every year.

Ging ended on a high note, saying that all hope is not lost in Gaza. Over half of the population is under the age of 18, and not necessarily prone to follow the violence advocated by Hamas.

One thing that became clear to me during the talk was that Israel needs to facilitate more humanitarian assistance to Gaza if it wishes to defeat Hamas. Hamas has historically attracted followers not through its militancy towards Israel, but through its charitable provision of social services to Palestinians. Israel can best undermine Hamas by providing large amounts of humanitarian assistance combined with an information campaign explaining how Hamas is harming the interests of everyday Palestinians. Israel’s blockade of Gaza serves a short-term security interest for the state of Israel. But while the construction ban might prevent attacks in the short-term, it also prevents economic development from occurring which exacerbates Israel’s long-term security problem. The blockade one of the main inhibitors to true social and economic development which is the only way for Israel to ultimately defeat Hamas, and normalize relations with its neighbors.