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What I learned from UNRWA November 20, 2010

Posted by Afflatus in Economics, Politics.
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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.

New York Times – April 3, 2009 April 3, 2009

Posted by Afflatus in World Affairs.
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There are some great articles in today’s New York Times, especially in the international section. First of all there are two articles about the G-20 summit. One clearly summarizes more or less how the meeting went,  and what the countries pledge to do. It looks like Obama did well, winning high praise from Angela Merkel. “He pushed very hard to come to concrete solutions and to have a fruitful discussion,” she said. Economists and other experts from MIT and Harvard were quoted in the article. For the most part they believe the meeting was a success, especially for Obama. However, they did have some reservations, and suggestions of how the G-20 could have improved. As an indicator of the overall success, stock markets around the world spiked, reflecting the investors’ optimistic response to the meeting. For more on this topic check out these two articles: $1.1 Trillion is Pledged and Obama Ties U.S. to World.

A third article that I found very interesting was about a recent terrorist attack in a West Bank settlement. The article was captivating because it addresses the attack, and the recently sworn-in (and right-wing)  government’s response. Here is the article.

Perhaps the most interesting article reported on a recent decision from a federal judge about the legality of detaining prisoners in Bagram, America’s Afghan detention center with twice as many detainees as Guantanamo. It details many interesting facts, some of which follow:

– “The importance of Bagram as a holding facility for terrorism suspects captured outside Afghanistan and Iraq has increased under the Obama administration”

– “The United States is holding about 600 people at Bagram without charges and in spartan conditions.”

– Some analysts expect Judge John D. Bates’ decision to be appealed by the Obama Administration because the ruling “gravely undermines the country’s ability to detain enemy combatants for the duration of hostilities worldwide.” Yet other experts praised the decision as “a very good day for the Constitution and the rule of law.”

The article provoked this idea in my mind: what if we detained people that we believed to be dangerous, but instead of torturing them, we educate them? After a few weeks we allow them to have some contact with the outside world. Instead of dark, clammy detention centers where brutal torture takes place, the prisoners are allowed outside. And, eventually (maybe 6 months after internment begins) Habeas Corpus must be granted to all detainees, by US and international law. In other words, we change the goal of the detention centers from torturing in order to elicit intelligence, to instead focusing on rehabilitation of the indoctrinated “terrorists.” Torture is not proven to be productive to our ultimate goal of reducing terrorism; in fact, in some cases, it has been proven to be counter-productive to this aim. Does torturing exacerbate the problem, more than it mitigates it? If so, we should totally re-think our means of achieving a more peaceful world, with less hate and terrorism. My plan would obviously cost more money to run the prisons, but maybe it would be money better spent.

Thoughts on my idea? Is it incredibly idealistic?

Everyone should check out the article. Here is a link to the article. And here is a link to the wikipedia page for reported Bagram torture abuse.

The wikipedia page shows the 15 US soldiers who have been charged with crimes related to torture and abuse of prisoners in Bagram, only from 2004 – 2006. This stuff goes on, but not everyone is aware of it.