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Palestinian school strikes have historically been precursors to violent uprisings, Israeli expert warns

In UNRWA’s financial crisis, a looming risk for Israel

With Israel and US ambivalent about its role, deficit of $101 million may force UN agency to shutter 700 schools as new academic year approaches

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a United Nations distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp, in southern Gaza Strip, February 8, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a United Nations distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp, in southern Gaza Strip, February 8, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Far from the conflict with Israel or the bitter rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the most significant crisis brewing in the Palestinian territories is the result of a United Nations financial pitfall.

Some 500,000 Palestinian pupils enrolled in schools operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency may not return to school on August 25 as a result of the UN body’s financial deficit of $101 million.

In a report sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week, UNRWA warned that some 700 schools and eight vocational training centers across the Middle East may remain shuttered at the start of the school year, although “life-saving” health and aid operations provided by the organization will continue to function.

“We don’t have the funding right now to pay over 22,000 teachers in 700 schools to open the schools from September to December,” UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner-General Sandra Mitchell said in a televised interview posted Saturday on the organization’s website.

Palestinian schoolgirls sit inside their classroom during the opening ceremony of Khuza'a school, which witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli forces during the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Khuza'a, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 22, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian schoolgirls sit inside their classroom during the opening ceremony of Khuza’a school, which witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli forces during the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Khuza’a, east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 22, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Created in 1949, UNRWA was tasked with providing education, medical services and employment to some 750,000 registered Palestinian refugees following the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Today, the number of aid recipients has mushroomed to over 5 million due to a unique provision allowing Palestinian refugees to bequeath their status to their offspring, indefinitely. The UN agency treating all other refugees around the world, UNHCR, does not allow first-generation refugees to pass down their status.

Most recently, UNRWA has been forced to direct its dwindling funds toward the Gaza Strip and Syria, where war conditions have left thousands of registered Palestinians homeless and helpless.

Nayel Bayya’, a mathematics teacher at an UNRWA high school in Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp, said teachers were experiencing uncertainty as to the future, but was confident that the school year would indeed resume as scheduled.

“These children have no alternative but the streets,” he said Wednesday.

The Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah party have also entered the fray. Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf on Tuesday called on the international community to step up to its “political and moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue.” He also pleaded with Arab countries to pay up, lest Palestinian students “be drawn in by extremist terror organizations.”

Arab states provide just 2% of funding

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by the US ($130 million annually) and the European Union ($106 million annually), with Arab states contributing just two percent of the organization’s annual budget.

Chris Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman in Gaza, gives a television interview during the 50-day war in the Strip, July 30, 2014 (screen capture YouTube/Kaya Bouma)
Chris Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman in Gaza, gives a television interview during the 50-day war in the Strip, July 30, 2014 (screen capture YouTube/Kaya Bouma)

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that some 240,000 pupils in Gaza rely on the UN for education. Protests have already broken out in the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave over the issue, with parents and students hurled eggs and shoes at the gates of the local UN office on Tuesday.

“The relationship between a fully funded UNRWA and regional security has never been more clear,” Gunness said in a written response Wednesday.

Israeli officials were reluctant to speak openly about UNRWA, exposing the state’s ambivalence towards the UN agency. On the one hand, official Israel considers UNRWA a major stumbling block to solving the Palestinian conflict because it inflates the refugee issue; but on the other is reluctant to bear the financial responsibility for costly medical and educational services for thousands of Palestinians.

“Israel tends to accuse UNRWA of perpetuating the refugee problem rather than being part of its solution,” said Ido Zelkovitz, a Palestinian history lecturer at Haifa University’s Ezri Center. “But I say unequivocally that Israel found it convenient to use UNRWA financially and educationally. UNRWA schools have saved the Civil Administration [Israel’s administrative branch in the West Bank – E.M.] huge funds that should have been allocated to the Palestinian education system.”

Zelkovitz warned that Palestinian school strikes have historically been the precursors to popular violent uprisings, be it during the Arab uprising of 1936-39 or the during the First Intifada that erupted in 1987.

“When youngsters are out of school, and also suffer from economic hardship, it’s much easier to draw them to political demonstrations,” he told The Times of Israel. “A strike would endanger both the Palestinian Authority and the relative quiet that we [in Israel] have been experiencing in the West Bank. It directly harms Israel’s interests.”

Education is not the only domain to suffer from UNRWAs financial deficit, however. The organization has “substantially reduced” individual assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, 95% of whom currently rely on the UN agency for their most basic needs. Requesting $415 million for Syrian Palestinians in 2015, UNRWA said that just half of last year’s appeal was covered. Meanwhile, the Gaza reconstruction project, budgeted at $720 million, currently suffers from a shortfall of nearly $500 million, Gunness said.

A Palestinian refugee living in Syria receives medication at an UNRWA clinic (courtesy/UNRWA/Taghrid Mohammad)
A Palestinian refugee living in Syria receives medication at an UNRWA clinic (courtesy/UNRWA/Taghrid Mohammad)

“In Gaza, children who have been living amid the rubble for over a year may now not be able to go to school,” he said. “This is truly appalling.”

It’s not that Western donor states have been particularity stingy, he admitted, but that more acute crises in places like Syria and Iraq have often taken precedence over the Palestinians’ plight. “Donors are facing so many different demands for foreign aid,” Gunness said.

That realization brought UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to note in June that UNRWA was never meant to exist for 65 years; its mandate was only renewed consistently due to “political failure,” Ban said.

American ambivalence

The United States, UNRWA’s most substantial financier, is — like Israel — of two minds regarding UNRWA.

A 2012 bill amendment proposed by Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk asked the State Department to distinguish between Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and those refugees who are their descendants. That would reduce the number of refugees from 5 million to just 30,000.

Israeli expert on Palestinian history Ido Zelkovitz (courtesy/Ido Zelkovitz)
Israeli expert on Palestinian history Ido Zelkovitz (courtesy/Ido Zelkovitz)

But the State Department has resisted drastic change to America’s approach to UNRWA. In May 2012, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides sent a letter to the US Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, arguing that Kirk’s bill amendment would undermine the American ability to act as a peace mediator, “and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan.”

The 2015 Framework for Cooperation between the US and UNRWA, published by the State Department last November, states that “the goal of US support to UNRWA is to ensure that Palestinian refugees live in dignity with an enhanced human development potential until a comprehensive and just solution is secured.”

Even ardent critics of the inflated UN organ — which employs 30,000 Palestinians in five countries and regions surrounding Israel — admit that its collapse would legally place the financial burden of caring for West Bank Palestinians on Israel (as the force in effective control of the territory) and on the ailing Palestinian Authority, itself a massive recipient of Western aid.

“The refugees must have a just and durable solution to their plight based on UN resolutions and international law,” Gunness concluded. “That is what would solve UNRWA’s financial crisis once and for all, because at that point the agency and its services would not be necessary.”

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