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Middle East

UN envoy warns Gaza is on the verge of ‘full collapse’, while US aid cuts hurt Palestinians in Lebanon

UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov says the territory “risks exploding in our faces again, this time in a far more deadly and violent manner”

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 5:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 7:09am

A senior United Nations official on Tuesday warned the Palestinian coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip was on the verge of “full collapse”.

UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said a key to saving Gaza from disaster was restoring the government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to power there, a decade after it was forced out by the militant Islamist movement Hamas.

“Without that, Gaza risks exploding in our face again, this time in a far more deadly and violent manner than in the past,” Mladenov said at the annual conference of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Gaza, battered since 2008 by three wars between Israel and Palestinian militants, suffers from shattered infrastructure, a strict Israeli blockade and massive unemployment.

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Earlier this month, the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in contributions to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

We’re on the verge of a total systems failure in Gaza, with a full collapse of the economy
UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov

“I often say publicly, in (UN) Security Council briefings and in other formats, that we are in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis,” Mladenov said.

“We’re on the verge of a total systems failure in Gaza, with a full collapse of the economy, with social services, political, humanitarian and security implications stemming from that.”

Also on Tuesday, the head of the UN agency for Palestinians criticised the “political dimension” of a US decision to dramatically slash funding to the organisation, warning this could lead to rising instability.

Pierre Krahenbuhl said the US decision to reduce funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) this year by US$300 million (HK$2.3 billion) “has a political dimension that I think should be avoided”.

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He made these comments while issuing an emergency appeal for more than US$800 million in funds to provide additional assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.

The United States, which for years has by far been UNRWA’s largest donor, announced this month it will be contributing just US$60 million to the organisation’s 2018 budget, down from US$360 million last year.

“It is very clear the decision by US was not related to our performance,” Krahenbuhl said, pointing out that he had a “positive” meeting with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner last November and had been left with the impression Washington would maintain its funding levels.

Mladenov said he would raise those concerns in Brussels on Wednesday at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which coordinates international donor support for the Palestinians.  

He said the meeting would be at a high level with representatives of the Israelis, Palestinians and “a number” of Arab foreign ministers attending.

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Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah will take part, a Palestinian Authority statement said. 

“One of our key messages must really be: what can we actually do to create and preserve hope for the people of Gaza, in order to address both the militant aspect of it and the humanitarian aspect?” Mladenov said. 

Krahenbuhl said the cuts were clearly linked to the Palestinian leadership’s decision this month to freeze ties with Trump’s administration after its controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Krahenbuhl stressed the “imperative to preserve and ensure that humanitarian funding is preserved from politicisation”.

With this donor funding cut for the Palestinians, our situation in the camps is very bad
Amira Nassar, Palestinian refugee in Lebanon

“The whole point of supporting communities in very difficult conflict environments is that one doesn’t have to agree with anyone’s leadership. One is concerned with the well-being … of communities.”

He underlined that UNRWA provides essential services to some 5.3 million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including running 700 schools and 140 health clinics.

US cuts to aid are not just affecting Palestinians in Palestine, but also those living outside the territory, such as the 170,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

In Lebanon’s Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp Amira Nassar said she fears for her future because aid had been cut to the UN agency that helps her and many other refugees.

“Services used to be very good in the beginning … They gave us medication and hospital admissions,” said Nassar, 63. “But now with this donor funding cut for the Palestinians, our situation in the camps is very bad.”

Barred from taking up most jobs in Lebanon, the refugees depend on the UNRWA for basic services.

Trump, stung by Palestinian condemnation of his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, had days earlier questioned the value of such funding.

Last week, he threatened again to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, accusing them of snubbing the United States by not meeting vice-president Mike Pence during a recent visit.

UNRWA is already facing a financial crisis and in Lebanon has had to adjust to the arrival of 30,000 more Palestinian refugees fleeing camps in war-torn Syria.

It’s extremely tough to be a Palestinian refugee this day
Claudio Cordone, head of UNRWA in Lebanon

“It’s extremely tough to be a Palestinian refugee this day. For one thing, there is no prospect of political solution any time soon and the living conditions are tough,” said Claudio Cordone, head of UNRWA in Lebanon.

“Anything that takes away any support that we are giving them would have a major serious impact on the day to day life,” he added when asked about the impact of the aid cut.

“We have a clear mandate, which is a humanitarian mandate. We need to support, through schools, through health, through other services, a very vulnerable population here in Lebanon and the other countries where UNRWA operates. We are determined to continue to do that,” said Cordone. 

Denmark, Finland, Germany Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland had already provided their annual donations in full, while Belgium, Kuwait, Netherlands and Ireland had vowed to do so “very soon”, he said.

“There is no doubt that if no solution is found to the shortfall … then there will be increased instability,” Krahenbuhl said. “Cutting and reducing funding to UNRWA is not good for regional stability.”

Following the US move, UNRWA last week launched a global fundraising campaign, titled “Dignity is Priceless”, to help fill the gaps.