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MIDDLE EAST

Gaza Reacts to Huge US Aid Cuts Amidst New US Plans for Economic Development

Two local children filling in water from one of the clean water points in the Maghazi refugee camp central Gaza Strip
Two local children filling in water from one of the clean water points in the Maghazi refugee camp central Gaza Strip. (Photo: Rami Almeghari)

“Our will and determination will remain strong and from this place in Gaza, every morning we look forward to returning back to Palestine.”

After making several threats, Washington finally decided to completely withhold all funds it has provided for decades to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The UNRWA is the main service provider for nearly 5.3 million Palestinian refugees and had already been facing a funding shortfall. But now with the loss of UNRWA aid, Gaza has been plunged into a crisis after the announcement that the U.S. would cease its annual contributions, normally of around $350 million.

UNRWA services, which in total cost about $1 billion annually, go to help Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories – the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem – as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

In June of last year, UNRWA announced it would undertake austerity measures, aimed at coping with the funding crisis. The funding crisis had already led to reduced emergency services in Gaza, which have been in place since 2000. Some 140 employees of long-standing emergency programs have been laid off, while a hundred others have had their working hours cut to bare bones.

Other basic services that Palestinian refugees receive, mainly in Gaza, had begun to be negatively affected by the UNRWA’s austerity measures. The agency’s education department stopped providing new free-of-charge school books for tens of thousands of school children in Gaza. In the meantime, some surgical operations, supported by UNRWA funding, have had to be delayed or halted.

The UNRWA also provides sanitation services and delivers food rations to Palestinian refugees in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In Gaza alone, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.2 million refugees depend regularly on UNRWA food aid deliveries. Over the past couple of years, with Gaza’s economy worsening because of the Israeli siege and the internal Palestinian political split, UNRWA-provided services have become a lifeline for refugee populations.

Reactions

Palestinians on the streets and in political offices expressed outrage at the U.S. for cutting off funding, saying the decision was politicized and aimed at extracting concessions from Palestinians in Washington’s upcoming Deal of the Century – the Trump administration’s yet to be announced solution for the Isreal-Palestine conflict.

In the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, where a majority of the population are refugees displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948, residents reacted angrily.

Um Mahmoud Aldeiry, originally from the Palestinian town of Asdud – now known as Ashdod, Israel’s largest port town (about 50km from Gaza) – was in the marketplace with her son Mahmoud, when she was asked her how service cuts would affect her.

“I believe, my family and I will go into a dire situation. Each pack of flour contains 50 kilograms. We call upon other [countries] to fill in the gap in UNRWA funding, before things get worse. I am a mother of four children and my husband is jobless and ill,” she told Citizen Truth.

Other residents of the same neighborhood, such as Mohammad Abdelkhaleq – a weaver from the Palestinian town of Asqalan, the present-day Ashkelon – believed that such measures are intended to make the Palestinians give up their right to self-determination and return to their former hometowns in what is now Israel.

“We will never renounce UNRWA, because UNRWA itself is the road back to Palestine. Our will and determination will remain strong and from this place in Gaza, every morning we look forward to returning back to Palestine.

“I believe that with our Palestinian unity, we can resist any vicious plans to undermine the Palestinian cause of justice,” the 66-year-old said while bending over his weaving machine in the packed marketplace.

Jihad Lubbad, 42, whose family was also from Asqalan, echoed his determination.

“No one in the world could break the will of the Palestinian people,” Lubbad said. “Washington’s move will not bring any deals that Palestinians find useless. Only those deals that are based on justice will be accepted by the Palestinian people.”

An Official Response

Ahmad Abu Houly, head of the refugee department of the Palestine Liberation Organization, believes the decision will foster instability and unrest among Palestinian refugees.

“The U.S. decision to cut funds, as well as the suggestion to direct responsibility for refugees to hosting authorities, instead of the UNRWA, are rejected vehemently,” he declared.

“The UNRWA was established by a UN resolution and therefore, the UN is the body which decides its fate.”

Abu Houly added that his team would do what it could to mobilize residents of refugee camps inside and outside the occupied territories to send a strong message of rejection over the U.S. decision to cut UNRWA funds.

Many believe the cut is just the latest effort by Washington to redefine the Palestinian cause. In May, Washington under President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy from the Israeli city of Tel Aviv to occupied East Jerusalem, after Trump declared occupied Jerusalem to be the capital of the occupying Israeli state.

Following its decision to cut off funds, the U.S. Congress considered a bill in 2018 that claimed that Palestinian refugees number no more than 40,000.

International law considers the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Palestinian refugees to also be refugees, as they have been prevented from returning to their homes by an occupying military power.

The 2018 bill in the U.S. Congress ignored approximately five million refugees – the children and the grandchildren of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.

Washington also shut down the Washington D.C. office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, pre-empting any PLO-led political mobility regarding U.S. plans. The PLO won U.S. recognition in 1993, when the official Palestinian representatives signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles with Israel, under the auspices of the current U.S. administration.

What is Needed?

“At the Palestinian level, Palestinians should reunite and have a unified political agenda that should counter Israel and the U.S.” Akram Attallah, a prominent Gaza-based political analyst, believed.

“I believe that the political dimension of such a U.S. decision remains the most serious, as the decision is apparently meant to annul the Palestinian right to return. The whole world is avoiding any friction with the U.S. or Israel; therefore, the U.S. is going ahead with its moves. With the current balance of power in the world, where the U.S. is taking the lead, it will be hard to pressure the U.S. towards any policy change.”

Since President Donald Trump has come to office, Washington’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has become strained. In response to the U.S. embassy move, the Palestinian Authority severed ties with the U.S. administration.

Washington Seeks an Economic Solution 

More recently, the administration of President Trump sent out invitations to several Arab and international finance ministers, as well as to businessmen, including local ones in Gaza, to attending an economic conference on June 25 in the Bahraini capital of Manama.

The conference is intended to discuss ways for economic development in both Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority refused the conference, calling it blackmail and saying it would preempt any political solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“The White House seems to be insulting the Palestinian people by allegedly showing concern about their living conditions, before addressing their national aspirations,” said Zahi Khouri, a leading Palestinian businessman and holder of Coca Cola company’s credit in the West Bank and Gaza.

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Rami Almeghari

Rami Almeghari is a freelance independent writer, journalist and lecturer, based in the Gaza Strip. Rami has contributed in English to several media outlets worldwide, including print, radio and TV. He can be reached on facebook as Rami Munir Almeghari and on email as [email protected]

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