Brussels was the scene last week of a series of high-level bilateral meetings between the director of URNWA operations in Gaza and officials of the European Commission, members of the European Parliament and representatives of EU member states. The meetings took place against the background of a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Strip. As reported by The Brussels Times, the Israeli government decided recently not to interfere in the internal dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority about the funding of the supply of electricity to Gaza. According to Israeli newspapers the Israeli government is gambling on that the international community will cover the missing funding.
Haaretz reported today (20 June) that the power cuts have taking effect, reducing the supply of electricity by 8 megawatt from the 120 megawatt amount Israel has been supplying recently.
The power cuts will make an already precarious situation even worse and reduce the power supply to three and a quarter hours per day, with disastrous effects on the running of hospitals, water supply and waste treatment. It may ignite a new war which neither Israel nor Hamas has any interest in. The latest tension in Summer 2014 escalated to full war in the wake of an economic crisis in the Strip.
UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees. Its mission is to help Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just solution to their plight.
In his meeting, URNWA director Bo Schack addressed the situation of the Palestinian refugees 10 years after the beginning of the blockade of Gaza and discussed how UNRWA and the European Union can work together to mitigate the economic, human and environmental impact of the closure and successive rounds of conflict which have plagued the Gaza Strip since 2007.
Bo Schack, a Danish national, serves as director for all UNRWA activities in Gaza since September 2015. He has a 30-year career in the United Nations system with extensive experience of peacebuilding, humanitarian response and protection expertise. Before he came to Gaza, he served as the UNHCR Representative and Country Director in Afghanistan during 2013-2015.
On 7 June, EU and UNRWA signed a joint declaration about cooperation and EU support in 2017 – 2020. Asked by The Brussels Times about the implications for the refugees in Gaza, Schack replied that the signature of the declaration sends a strong signal regarding the continuous political and financial support of the EU to UNRWA.
“EU’s annual contributions to the UNRWA Programme Budget as foreseen in the Joint Declaration have a positive and concrete impact for Palestinian refugees in Gaza: they directly support the education of 262,000 students, the professional development of 2,400 technical and vocational training centres students, and the health and well-being of 1.3 million Palestinian refugees.”
They also allow UNRWA to offer relief and social services to the most vulnerable refugees, to run its Microfinance programme and to address the most pressing human development needs of the coastal enclave through its Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Programme.
The Joint Declaration also foresees the possibility for the EU to fund ad hoc projects to respond to specific needs, which EU has done many times in the past. EU is also supporting the UNRWA response to emergency shelter needs in Gaza following the 2014 conflict.
UN and observers have been warning that Gaza might become inhabitable in 2020 because of the lack of water, environmental pollution and other problems. Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz has been lobbying for the construction of an artificial island with a harbour outside Gaza to boost the economy in the Strip, while addressing Israeli security concerns, but the government has not approved his plan.
Pending a political solution, what can be done to prevent an environmental disaster in Gaza in only a few years from now? Schack put most of the blame for the continuous downward slide in the socio-economic situation in Gaza and the deterioration of the physical environment on the blockade of Gaza. “URNWA calls for a full lifting of the blockade”.
He referred also to a portfolio of projects addressing some of the most pressing social infrastructure, environmental health, housing and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) needs of Gaza. “As of May 2017, 27 infrastructure projects worth US$ 61.7 million and approved by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) are under implementation.”
Schack remarked “that the deteriorating situation with regard to the provision of electricity in the Gaza Strip is deeply alarming” but declined to comment on whether he had asked EU for emergency funding to solve the acute crisis.
The electricity crisis “exacerbates the plight of Gaza residents after ten years of blockade, recurrent conflict and longstanding shortages in energy provision which affect every aspect of daily life. First and foremost, it denies a human standard of living to the people in Gaza”.
The Brussels Times asked Schack about the blockade of Gaza. Is there still a blockage of goods to Gaza from Israel? How much and which goods are missing and how does this affect UNRWA’s work in Gaza? Are we mainly talking about dual-use goods? What about the Rafah crossing to Egypt, which seems to be closed most of the time?
“June 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the blockade in Gaza,” Schack replied without going into any details. “The blockade leaves Gaza residents trapped in the small coastal enclave and isolates them from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory and the wider world affecting individual lives in myriad ways.”
UNRWA protested recently against Hamas tunnels passing under two of its schools. Do you fear that there are more tunnels under your facilities in Gaza? Schack referred to a statement issued by the UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness:
“UNRWA condemns the existence of such tunnels in the strongest possible terms. It is unacceptable that students and staff are placed at risk in such a way. The construction and presence of tunnels under UN premises are incompatible with the respect of privileges and immunities owed to the United Nations under applicable international law, which provides that UN premises shall be inviolable.”
Bo Schack was pleased with his meetings with members of the European Parliament’s “Delegation for relations with Palestine” (DPAL). “I had a very interesting exchange of views with the members of DPAL which confirmed the continued support and appreciation of the EP for UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, particularly in these difficult times in Gaza. MEPs share UNRWA’s concerns regarding the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Gaza, further exacerbated by the recent energy crisis.”
“We discussed the importance of looking at the people in Gaza and not only at the images that are too often depicted from Gaza: a place full of terrorists or a humanitarian basket situation with people only being dependent on international assistance without capacity and aspirations towards living a normal life,” he concluded.
According to Schack, the European Parliament has repetitively called for increased contributions of the European Union to the UNRWA Programme Budget, which covers the Agency’s essential services in the domains of education, health care, and relief and social services.
The Israeli government stated recently that “it’s time to dismantle UNRWA because it’s pertuating the refugee problem”. Judging by Schack’s visit in Brussels, UNRWA is seen by EU as a stabilizing factor which carries out important humanitarian work in taking care of the needs of the Palestinian refugees pending a political solution of the conflict.
The Brussels Times