The picture painted by Margot Ellis, deputy commissioner of the United Nations (UN) Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), at the mid-March launch of an inter-agency humanitarian appeal for Gaza and the West Bank, is startlingly desperate.
“Food assistance is of paramount importance,” Ellis said in a UNRWA statement. “Children are suffering immensely in Gaza, as it has been reported that one in 10 children is experiencing stunted growth brought on by malnutrition.” She noted that in 2013, UNRWA provided food assistance to over 800,000 refugees, comparing it to better economic conditions in 2000 when only 10 per cent of refugees required UNRWA food aid.
According to 2013 figures from the UN, the population in Gaza is more than 1.5 million people, including 1.2 million Palestine refugees. Decades of conflict have left 80 per cent of the population dependent on international assistance.
With so much media attention focused on the violence in Syria, Ellis said that “in many ways, the plight of the Palestine refugees in the West Bank and Gaza has become a silent emergency. The stark reality is that the livelihood of Palestine refugees in Gaza is plummeting and it is increasingly difficult to secure funding for these very real and pressing humanitarian needs.”
UNRWA estimated that for 2014, US$300 million in aid would be required—US$245 million for Gaza and US$45 million in the West Bank. The agency said it would likely receive only US$120 million, less than half of what is needed.
“This reality of the shortfall in emergency funding,” Ellis said, “forces us to reflect on the unspeakable further suffering that will take place without adequate funding for UNRWA to provide food assistance, protection services, water and sanitation, emergency education and shelter to those most in need.”
According to UNWRA, a trade blockade imposed by the government of Israel following the June 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza “has decimated lives and livelihoods, resulting in the impoverishment and de-development of a highly skilled and well-educated society.”
Despite adjustments the Israeli government made to the blockade in June 2010, Ellis said that the blockade remains “the number one reason for the lack of development of Gaza’s once dynamic and trade-oriented economy. The blockade is strangling whatever is left of the economy and livelihood of Gazans.” She noted that the unemployment rate in the last quarter of 2013 was 38.5 per cent—10 percentage points higher than it had been six months earlier.
The halt of an illegal tunnel trade, which had been “a necessary lifeline,” has led to an electricity, fuel and food crisis, said Ellis. Construction in Gaza, one of the main potential economic sources of growth and jobs, has been severely affected, and prices have skyrocketed by as much as 300 per cent since June 2013, she added.
The lack of access to fuel imported from Egypt has also “aggravated the already fragile economic situation, forcing the Gaza Power Plant to shut down for 46 days in November and December 2013,” Ellis said, adding that funding from Qatar made power available, but once those Qatari-funded resources were depleted, power outages for 12 to 16 hours a day were the norm.
UNRWA, which was established in 1949, is responsible for carrying out direct relief and works programs for about 750,000 Palestinian refugees “whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” between Arabs and Israel. The agency’s mandate has been repeatedly renewed for four generations of Palestinian refugees, who now number about 5 million people.
Part of UNRWA’s responsibilities, along with the international community, the Palestinian Authority and local partners, is “to ensure that the plight of these refugees remains vivid and unforgotten,” Ellis said.