Not long ago, I had a conversation with an official I know from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The official told me about a conversation he had with a senior Israel Defense Forces officer. In that conversation, my UN colleague asked the IDF official to describe Israel’s policy toward Gaza. The answer was just seven words long: “No development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis,” by now a common refrain within Israel’s military and political establishment.
As shocking as this statement is, it offers a remarkably accurate reflection of Israel’s near 50-year policy in Gaza. While Israel did allow a limited degree of prosperity during the first years of the occupation, it has, nonetheless, aimed to prohibit any form of economic development in the territory—and, hence, the emergence of a Palestinian state. This approach has been especially ruinous for Gaza over the last decade, during which Israel imposed a strangling blockade that eliminated virtually all exports, shrank the manufacturing sector by as much as 60 percent, and reduced Gaza’s GDP by 50 percent, according to the World Bank. Israel has further launched three major military assaults on Gaza since the end of 2008—the latest and largest of them last summer (Operation Protective Edge)—leveling neighborhoods, destroying infrastructure, and inflicting immeasurable damage on the tiny strip and its nearly 2 million inhabitants.
Tragically, what was once considered a lower-middle-income economy (together with the West Bank) has become a land on the verge of economic and humanitarian collapse. According to a May 2015 World Bank report, the unemployment rate in Gaza stands at 43 percent (over 60 percent of Gaza’s youth are unemployed), the highest in the world. Nearly 40 percent live below the poverty line. Clean water is a rarity, with at least 90 percent of Gaza’s supply unfit for human consumption. Electricity is sporadic, available only four to six hours a day, and a properly functioning sewage treatment system no longer exists. No development, no prosperity, indeed.
And now, beneath this unrelieved disaster lies another potential one, which threatens to further destabilize Gaza’s already deepening instability: the decline in funding for UNRWA, the same relief agency for which my UN colleague works and one of the few forces standing between the people of Gaza and unmitigated humanitarian suffering. The situation has become so dire that, in June, the commissioner-general of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl, warned that the agency might have to stop its operations within three months.
UNRWA is now in its 65th year. Established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA began operations on May 1, 1950, with a mandate to provide direct relief and public works programs to Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. That it continues to exist more than six decades since its inception is a stark illustration of the political failure to find a just solution for the Palestinian refugees. With a staff of around 30,000 (approximately 42 percent of whom work in Gaza), UNRWA provides protection and assistance to 5.2 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East—specifically, in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Its brief includes providing healthcare, education, social services, emergency aid, and infrastructure support. And it does all of this with an annual budget of $1.4 billion.