UN says Gaza situation ‘catastrophic’ amid deepening aid cuts

Palestinian coastal enclave, seized by Hamas in 2007, has seen annual foreign financing drop to a third of the $2 billion it received a decade ago

A Palestinian man transports bags of flour outside an aid distribution center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip ,on September 4, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The UN said Wednesday that the situation in Gaza was “catastrophic” after 11 years of “economic siege” and warned that Washington’s decision to halt assistance to Palestinian refugees and their descendants would create “more misery.”

“The situation in Gaza is becoming less and less livable,” said Isabelle Durant, the deputy head of the United Nations development agency (UNCTAD).

“It is catastrophic,” she told reporters in Geneva.

In a new report, the UN agency said the Palestinian economy was being hit hard by a sharp drop in international support to the Palestinians, even before Washington’s dramatic cuts.

Last year, international development assistance to the Palestinians shrunk by more than 10 percent compared to a year earlier.

And at $720 million, it stood at just a third of the $2 billion received a decade earlier, the UNCTAD report showed.

US cuts

That dramatic drop in support came before US President Donald Trump’s government decided to completely halt its funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which had previously stood at around $350 million a year.

Announcing an end to all its funding for UNRWA on September 1, the US State Department castigated the agency for failed practices, and indicated that it rejected the criteria by which UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees, whereby the UN agency confers refugee status not only on original refugees but on their millions of descendants.

Palestinian students stand outside a classroom as they wait to attend a ceremony to mark the return to school of a new year at one of the UNRWA schools, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 3, 2018. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The Trump administration has also scrapped around $200 million in payments by USAID to the Palestinians, and over the weekend said it would cut $25 million more in direct aid to six hospitals that primarily serve Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

The declining international support, coupled with “a freeze in the reconstruction of Gaza and unsustainable credit-financed public and private consumption, paint a bleak picture for future growth,” UNCTAD said in a statement.

It also alleged widespread restrictions on the movement of people and goods, the confiscation of land and natural resources, and an accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements.

Wednesday’s report slammed what it said was the shackling of the economy in the Palestinian territories, which are struggling with the world’s highest unemployment rate — of more than 27 percent overall and around 44% in Gaza alone.

Women and youth are disproportionately impacted by the lack of jobs, it said, with half of Palestinians under the age of 30 out of work, while only 19% of women participate in the labor force.

In a report last year, the UN agency said that the Palestinian economy could easily double and that sky-high unemployment and poverty would plummet if Israel’s West Bank presence was lifted.

In its latest report, UNCTAD claimed that simply removing some Israeli restrictions on Palestinian trade and investment could allow the territory’s gross economy to swell by up to 10%.

‘Profound suffering’

Removing restrictions on Gaza was particularly important, UNCTAD said, warning that the Strip had been “reduced to a humanitarian case of profound suffering and aid dependency.”

Mahmoud Elkhafif, who coordinates UNCTAD’s Assistance to the Palestinian People Unit, told reporters that the agency had not yet analyzed the impact the US cuts might have on the Palestinian economy, but stressed they would certainly result in “more misery” in Gaza especially.

Palestinian fishermen sit in their boat off the shores of the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, as an Israeli patrol is seen in the distance, March 26, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)

In 2012, UNCTAD warned that the area risked becoming “uninhabitable” by 2020 unless trends were reversed, but on Wednesday the agency said conditions “are worse” than when it made that prediction.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew all its military and civilians from the enclave. In the past decade, Israel and Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, have fought three devastating wars. The strip has also suffered from the security blockade imposed on it by Israel and Egypt, which Israel says is designed to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry. The UNCTAD said the blockade had “eviscerated” the territory’s productive capacity.

Israel says Gaza’s terrorist Hamas rulers have squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on building their military capabilities to fight Israel rather than spending the cash on improving conditions in the enclave.

Gaza’s some 1.8 million residents currently count on average a real income per person that is 30% lower than in 2000.

And Elkhafif pointed out that half of the people in the Strip were considered food-insecure even before the US announced its cuts to UNRWA, which provides aid to some 80% of the population.

Simply lifting the blockade would quickly see its economic growth shoot up by a third, the report claimed. However, Israel is unlikely to sanction such a step, given Hamas’s ongoing hostility.

Currently, many of the goods heading to Gaza arrive at Israeli ports, where they are searched for weapons or military equipment and then delivered to the Palestinian enclave in hundreds of trucks a day.

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