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Tension in Gaza rises while problems remain unresolved

Two months after an unconditional ceasefire ended the Gaza-Israel war in May, there is still no political horizon and plan for a long-term reconstruction to prevent future outbreaks of violence.

Both sides are keen on breaking the vicious circle which has led to recurrent escalation but until now nothing has been done to tackle the unsustainable situation in the Gaza Strip. The international community, including the EU, is reluctant to invest in reconstruction and development projects that would risk to be destroyed in next round of violence.

A crucial factor in keeping a relative calm in Gaza was the transfer of cash every month from Qatar with the permission of the Israeli government. The transfers ceased before the war but last Thursday a solution was found for preventing Hamas, the terrorist organisation ruling Gaza, from diverting the money for its purposes.

According to the solution, about 100,000 Palestinian families in Gaza will each directly receive $100 every month. The money will first be transferred to a UN bank account in New York, from there to banks in Ramallah in the West Bank and then to their branches in Gaza.

By that the immediate problem has not been solved. Hamas demands another $10 million to pay the salaries of its own employees. It refuses to release two Israeli civilians and to return the bodies of two soldiers without a prisoner exchange with Israel.

The agreement with Qatar is only a temporary solution and did not prevent the renewal of violent protests along the border on Saturday, with Hamas “weaponizing” civilians and refugees to put pressure on Israel. According to Israeli sources, Hamas has been left with enough rockets to sustain a new armed confrontation with Israel.

EU – UNRWA relations

The EU is the biggest donnor of aid to UNRWA, the UN agency for the Palestinian refugees. The agency plays an important role in Gaza, where the majority of the population or about 1.3 million people are UNRWA-registered refugees. Has UNRWA estimated the costs to repair the damage caused by the Gaza war in May to its buildings and installations and how does it plan to raise the necessary funding?

“UNRWA has already started supporting Palestine refugees whose houses have been completely demolished or severely damaged by the latest round of hostilities in Gaza,” Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, replied. “It’s important to note that at the height of the conflict, UNRWA had over 70,000 people taking refuge in nearly 60 of its schools in Gaza after they fled their homes.”

“It has also distributed a round of food assistance to the most vulnerable. While the visual impact of the demolished buildings is striking, we are equally worried about the severity of trauma and despair that the conflict has left on people. The agency relies on donor generosity to provide much needed services and assistance to the Gaza population.”

He added that the EU is one of UNRWAs strongest supporters. “We look forward to signing a renewal of our joint declaration, which will cement this strong partnership for another three years.”

Lazzarini visited Brussels for the first time this Summer in his capacity as Commissioner-General. This year marks the 50th year of the partnership with EU that started in 1971.

“The visit mainly sought to strengthen the agency’s partnership with the different EU institutions, and to confirm that Palestine refugees will continue to receive support through the EU’s support to UNRWA, until there is a just and lasting solution to their plight,” he explained. “EU’s position towards UNRWA is anchored in its own position on the Israel-Palestine conflict resolution track.”

Referring to “politically-motivated attacks” against UNRWA, he underlined that the organisation “has zero tolerance to violence, hatred, discrimination of any kind and antisemitism.”

The funding of UNRWA’s activities and emergency calls have been a recurrent issue in recent years. UNRWA may need extra funding to cover its expenditure during 2021 because of the coronavirus crisis and the need to rebuild its facilities after the Gaza war in May. A spokesperson for the European Commission commented that the joint EU-UNRWA declaration is expected to be signed in Autumn.

Relations with Hamas

Media reported that a tunnel under a school yard belonging to UNRWA was bombed by Israel during the war. The bombing caused damage to the school and endangered the people taken shelter there. Were there other similar incidents during the war? How can they be avoided if a new round of fighting would erupt?

“We constantly and repeatedly call for the protection of civilian life and of civilian property, including UN infrastructure at all times,” Lazzarini replied. “UN buildings, all clearly marked with UN flags, are considered inviolable during conflicts and should never be used as military bases or targeted.  Unfortunately, grave incidents occurred in the in past conflicts with attacks against UNRWA schools.”

“Respect of international humanitarian law is key during hostilities, and conditions should not be created in the surrounding of UN installations to put them at risk of targeting or other collateral damage. All parties should take utmost precaution to stay away from UN buildings.”

Lazzarini has also expressed his concerns about attacks against senior UNRWA staff in the Gaza and protested against the De Facto authorities, Hamas, in the Strip. Has the security for the staff been restored since then?

“My strong call in support of the UNRWA team in Gaza came after the agency received indications by various political constituencies that the safety of some of its staff might no longer be guaranteed in the Strip, something that is completely unacceptable for a humanitarian agency,” he replied.

“I can say though today that the agency continues to operate in Gaza, has access and freedom of movement of its staff, vehicles and humanitarian goods on the ground, our operational space allows our teams to attend to the needs of the affected populations.”

“The UNRWA schools were opened for a summer session for children, partly to help them gain a sense of normality and be in contact with their friends and their educators. The COVID-19 vaccination rollout resumed in the UNRWA health centres, and the regular health services are available. All this is possible when UNRWA staff know that they are safe and their security is non-negotiable.”

Vaccination campaign?

The corona crisis continues to take its toll in Gaza where much fewer people have been vaccinated than in the West Bank. Israel announced in June that it planned to give the Palestinian Authority up to 1 million vaccine doses but the authority rejected the offer because of the near expiry date and the Israeli condition that it cannot transfer some of them to the Gaza Strip.

Since the cancellation of vaccines to the Palestinian authority, Israel has been ordering more vaccines for its population and launched a booster campaign.

In Israel, there are calls on the new Prime-Minister, Naftali Bennett, to open the border crossings for trade and focus on the rehabilitation of Gaza with international help, especially its infrastructure for water- and waste treatment and electricity production, which was damaged in the war. There is no need to wait for the elusive political solution.

The Israeli Prime-Minister has warned Hamas that the Gaza Strip will have to get used to a new reality, referring presumably to the cash support from Qatar and the occasional shooting and incendiary balloons from the Strip. From the point of view of UNRWA – what new policy do you expect from Israel with regard to your activities in the Gaza? Are there talks going on where you are involved?

“UNRWA maintains regular dialogue with Israel under the framework of its Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in order to ensure humanitarian access and enabling conditions for the performance of agency operations on the ground,” Commissioner-General Lazzarini replied. “Beyond this, we would hope that Israel may acknowledge the unsustainability of the blockade it continues to impose on the Gaza Strip and lift such restrictions, which stifle the Gaza population for the foreseeable future.”

In this context, Israel sharing vaccines with its immediate neighbours would both contain the spread of the corona virus and serve as a confidence-building measure, according to experts. UNRWA which already takes care of up to 70 % of the population in Gaza would have the capacity and trust of the local population to carry out a vaccine campaign.

“UNRWA’s position has always been to call for and work on an equitable approach to vaccinating all eligible people as the virus knows no limits and does not stop at the entrance of Gaza,” the Commissioner-General concluded. “UNRWA has been heavily involved in the vaccination campaign in its health centres as we have the infrastructure that allows us to receive, store and dispense the vaccines in line with international standards.“

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times