InterviewThere's no 'ongoing commitment' from anyone, he laments

UN envoy: Arab world must boost aid to Palestinians, but buck stops with Israel

Jamie McGoldrick, the UN deputy special coordinator for the peace process, advocates for Palestinian reconciliation, says the UN wants the PA to resume control of Gaza

UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Jamie McGoldrick in his Jerusalem office, October 31, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Jamie McGoldrick in his Jerusalem office, October 31, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The Arab world should step up donations to the Palestinians, but ultimately the responsibility for the poor humanitarian situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip lies with Israel, a senior United Nations official based in Jerusalem said.

While UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Jamie McGoldrick agrees with the US administration that the wider international community needs to increase donations to the Palestinians, especially to alleviate the “catastrophic situation” in Gaza, he also indicated that Israel, as the occupying power, needs to do more to improve conditions in the coastal Strip.

“The Arab world should contribute more, but also we have to recognize that this is an occupation as well. There are responsibilities for the context that is being created by Israel,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview.

“The restrictions of movement and access to Gaza, for example, are put in place not by the Arab world. They are put in place by Israel. So I would say there are different degrees of accountability and responsibility for support to and creating a better life for people in places like Gaza. And that’s the Arab world, that’s the international community, and that’s also Israel.”

McGoldrick not only decried the recent dramatic funding cuts to the Palestinians by the administration of US President Donald Trump, but also spoke of a general “donor fatigue” that makes its increasingly difficult to raise the funds needed to assist the needy in the West Bank and Gaza.

“The donor community has put a question mark over supporting humanitarian response in Palestine,” he said, adding that this year, the UN’s “Response Plan” for Palestine, an annual appeal the international body makes to donors to support aid projects, has been significantly less successful than past efforts.

“And there’s nobody stepping forward. The European Union and others have come forward and put in bits and pieces, but you have to get that to be a predictable commitment,” he said. “What is needed is an ongoing commitment to ensure continuity in the assistance, rather than one-time payments.”

Like other regions, the Arab world has failed to make such commitments, McGoldrick lamented. “I don’t think they have come forward consistently and regularly and said we will give you ‘x’ for the next three to five years.”

The international donor community is “clearly turned off” by the Palestinian humanitarian crisis, he went on. “We don’t understand why that is. It’s not just what’s coming out of UNRWA, it seems to be a depreciation of what’s happening here,” he said, referring to the UN agency tasked with aiding Palestinian refugees.

Earlier this year, the US cut all its assistance to UNRWA, calling the organization “irredeemably flawed.”

“Regionally, there are a lot of competing interests here. There are newer crises, there are fresher crises — in Syria, Libya, Yemen — and all of them have a different degree of attention,” McGoldrick said. “The Palestinian crisis is longstanding. Maybe there’s a fatigue, maybe people are waiting to see what’s coming next.”

He did agree, however, with US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who in July said in a speech to the Security Council that other nations, including those attacking Washington for cutting funds, are themselves only giving very little to the Palestinians.

For instance, Iran, Algeria and Tunisia last year contributed zero dollars to UNRWA, Haley said at the time, calling on those countries that vocally defend Palestinian rights to increase their financial assistance to the cause.

“She was saying many people talk about support to UNRWA but don’t fund it. And I think that’s right,” he said.

While Qatar and a few other Arab countries have been donating hefty sums of money for aid projects benefiting the Palestinians, several other Arab states have not been making major contributions.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting at UN Headquarters, July 24, 2018 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

Speaking to The Times of Israel at UN headquarters in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, McGoldrick described in great detail the hardships of people in Gaza, arguing that the violence toward Israel that emanates from the Strip is an expression of growing frustration among the people there.

“Everybody recognizes, including the government of Israel, that the more you can take the sting out of the humanitarian crisis there to make people’s lives so much better, the less frustrated and angry they’ll be,” he said. “And if they had some hope, which is in very short supply in Gaza, and people felt there was a possibility for them to have a better life — people would be occupied with other things [than attacking Israel].

“When you’ve got 70 percent of youths who are unemployed in Gaza, that’s a frustrating context,” McGoldrick continued. “You’ve got a mobile phone and you can see how the outside world is, you can see how people profit and benefit from a life outside. And here you are stuck, the only horizon is the ocean. You look at the ocean, and you can’t escape. So people feel frustrated in that regard.”

The rift within Palestinian society also does very little to instill hope, he went on, adding that the UN supports the ongoing efforts to bridge the divide between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, which rules in the West Bank, and the Hamas terror organization in Gaza.

“Reconciliation is the key to all. The idea is to get a stable governance environment for the situation inside Gaza — something we are able to work with and liaise with. [Something that can] have ties with the outside world is what you’re looking for. And right now, that’s not the case,” he said.

“The efforts of the Egyptians and others and the [UN’s] special envoy [to the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov] are ongoing. These things can take a long time.”

Ultimately, the UN wants the PA to resume control over Gaza, McGoldrick said. “It makes our job easier, and hopefully create an atmosphere that people can see hope.”

Egypt brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah in October 2017 to advance reconciliation efforts, but the rival parties failed to implement it. They have been at odds over Gaza since Hamas wrested control of the Strip from the PA in a bloody 2007 coup.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza remains “terrible,” he noted.

“It’s a catastrophic situation since the violence erupted on March 30, when this Great March of Return started,” he said, referring to a series of protests at the Gaza border that Hamas has played a key role in organizing.

Palestinians hurl burning tires at the Gaza security fence during the sixth ‘March of Return’ demonstration on May 4, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“When you go to the hospital, to the children’s hospital, you see some tragic things that we should not see in this time of the century. The two boys I see, one called Noor and the other called Hamsa, one 18 and one 19 years of age, and they’re both quadriplegic,” he said. “They’re in a hospital bed that cannot really accommodate them because you’ve got electricity for four hours a day.

“That’s reality. And that father and that mother looking at their children in those wards don’t care. What they care about is: Why can’t that life be better? We have to find a way for humanity to win over politics, because right now it’s not.”

McGoldrick, who served in Yemen before arriving in Jerusalem earlier this year, said most families in Gaza are “not politically charged” or motivated by political goals.

“They just find themselves caught in very difficult circumstances beyond their control and influence,” he said. “And all they want is to have a life of their own — to have a car and house, good education, and good hospital facilities. That’s basically what most people want. These people just want a life. I think most people here just want to get on with their lives.”

Asked about the incessant violence from Gaza toward Israel, and whether the ostensible apolitical majority is being held hostage by a radical minority hellbent on destroying Israel, McGoldrick noted the disparity in the casualty count.

“But let’s also recognize how many people have been killed or injured on the Israeli side since the 30th of March. How many have been killed and injured since the 30th of March on the other side?” he asked.

Since the often violent protests began on March 30, over 150 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during demonstrations and clashes along the border, including a number of people who broke through the fence into Israel. Dozens of the fatalities were Hamas members. During that time, one Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

Asked whether it made sense to compare casualty numbers, McGoldrick replied: “No, I’m just telling you we have to recognize we have a situation where innocent people are getting caught up in demonstrations.

“Some of the demonstrations are because people are frustrated and angry because they don’t see any hope,” he said. “Many children have been shot and injured. You know children should not be in those difficult circumstances in the first place. But at the same time, care and attention has to be better from all parties.”

McGoldrick also argued that the tens of millions of dollars Qatar recently pledged in humanitarian aid for Gaza should be diverted to other projects.

“We would like to convince them to use that money for cash for work programs, a much easier way to put money into people’s pockets, in the economy,” he said, emphasizing that Palestinians in Gaza need greater purchasing power.

“We have already identified who the most vulnerable people are and the ones whose families would benefit the most from that funding. So for us, a cash for work program would be a much more advantageous way to improve the situation on the ground.”

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