In teaching about peace operations, peacebuilding, and complex humanitarian emergencies I always stress to students how intensely political aid and development can be in fragile and conflict-affected countries. In writing and talking about UNRWA I have also made the point that, however one evaluates its successes and failures in assisting Palestinian refugees over the past six decades, one always needs to keep in mind the very difficult operational environment in which the Agency operates. Recent weeks have rather underscored that point.
In Gaza, there have been a series of protests directed against UNRWA, including a blockade of its headquarters. There are a variety of reasons for this: dismay over the slow pace of reconstruction projects, frustration at austerity measures due to the Agency’s ongoing budget constraints, changes in procedures for food distribution to needy families, and silly accusations that changes to the UNRWA logo reflect an international conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian issue. Some of the protests have also raised interesting issues of accountability, and whether refugees ought to be more directly involved in setting Agency priorities.
However, all of this also takes place against a backdrop of tensions between UNRWA and the Hamas government in Gaza. Only by understanding those tensions can one understand the dynamics of the protests.
Hamas needs UNRWA, since without it there is little doubt that the population of Gaza would suffer a critical shortfall in essential health and education services and a serious humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, UNRWA is something of a competitor to Hamas too. Every student attending an UNRWA school is not sitting in a Hamas-controlled classroom, and every child participating in UNRWA’s immensely successful Summer Games is not being indoctrinated in a Hamas summer camp. Many of the values that UNRWA encourages—from its human rights curriculum to mixed-gender children’s activities—are not ones welcomed by many Hamas activists. The Agency’s efforts to bar overt political activity by its staff in keeping with UN rules don’t sit well with those in Hamas who feel that the movement ought to exercise some power within the UN agency. Finally, Hamas itself is always concerned that it will be politically outflanked by more hardcore Islamist elements who see the Agency as an agent of Western imperialism. Some of these have vandalized UNRWA facilities or threatened UNRWA staff in the past, which is why senior UNRWA staff in Gaza must sometimes travel with a personal security detail.
Consequently, while there are always issues about which refugees can legitimately question and criticize the Agency, the current protests in Gaza really need to be seen as a deliberate effort by Hamas to pressure UNRWA by stoking up refugee fears and concerns. Recognizing this, UNRWA raised the stakes and called Hamas’ bluff by threatening to temporarily suspend operations in Gaza:
A United Nations agency taking care of Palestinian refugees threatened Thursday to suspend all its activities in the Gaza Strip if people did not end a series of protests against the organization.
“We are thinking to stop our operations completely in a week” if the protests against the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continued, said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UNRWA.
Dozens of people have blocked gates of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City for the second day because the agency suspended some of its relief programs.
Gunness stressed that it is unacceptable for the protests to develop in this way.
The UNRWA says their basic services, mainly health and education, are still being offered normally, and the suspension targeted other programs such as temporary employment.
The UNRWA attributes the crisis to a lack of funding, noting that the donor countries did not meet their obligations.
The protests are sponsored by Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls Gaza. Hamas refused the UNRWA’s threats to stop the operations and called on the protestors to continue their sit-in around the agency’s headquarters.
As Gunness explained in an extended interview with the Ma’an News Agency:
The protesters who closed down UNRWA’s Gaza office say they were doing this to fight for the rights of the refugees whose assistance is being slashed. What’s your response to this?
Gunness: This protest action was entirely counter-productive. By keeping hundreds of UNRWA staff out of their offices, the organizers were harming the very refugees on whose behalf they claim to be protesting. The Gaza office is the “command and control” center from which we run our programs across the entire Gaza Strip.
We need access to our computers to service projects, to manage our education, health, relief and social service programs. It’s where the personnel department is based for, for example, paying staff salaries, it’s where our IT department is, it’s where the radio room is for security and without these things our full programs become unsustainable very quickly.
The refugees and their representatives are naturally angry about the slashing of emergency services and have threatened further action. How worried is UNRWA about this?
Because of a $35 million shortfall in its emergency budget, UNRWA in Gaza has been forced to make drastic cuts to its emergency programs. The original emergency appeal of $300 million had already been scaled back to $150 million because of the inadequate donor response and even against this minimum spending requirement, we are $35 million short.
The core of the $300 million emergency appeal had been for food assistance to 600,000 people, jobs for 53,000 people, cash assistance for 300,000 abject poor (living on less than $1.6 per day) and basic assistance to public health infrastructure. Starting in the month of July, we have been forced to cut the jobs program from 10,000 contracts per month to 6,500 contracts and we have been forced to end our “back to school” cash assistance of 100 NIS [$29.44] for each of more than 200,000 children in UNRWA schools.
UNRWA is doing all it can to mobilize the support of donors. But we fear that if the current situation continues, further cuts to our emergency services in Gaza will be inevitable. Make no mistake, the lack of donor funds to UNRWA is now directly affecting the stability of the Middle East with anti-UN protests threatening to shut down UNRWA on the doorstep of Israel at a time of already heightened instability in the region.
You are passing the buck to your donors, but who ultimately is to blame; is it really UNRWA’s donors?
The real problem is that we are asking our donors to fund emergency programs which aim to mitigate the effects of Israel’s illegal collective punishment of 1.5 million people. The International Committee of the Red Cross has called the blockade a “clear breach of international law” in the face of which there has to be transparency and accountability.
From UNRWA’s point of view, it would be better for those states and organizations with the power to bring the necessary pressures to bear to end the collective punishment rather than pay UNRWA to deal with its disastrous impact. We would far rather be spending our time and our donors’ money on human development, particularly in education, which does add to the stability of this region than on emergency operations which respond to an illegal and destabilizing collective punishment. Is it not better to end the root cause, which is the collective punishment?
There is also deep discontent about the removal of over 100,000 people from your food distribution lists. What is going on?
About 100,000 people have come off our food distribution lists because UNRWA is now using a more accurate poverty assessment system to determine eligibility for food assistance. This change in the eligibility system is meant to ensure that UNRWA can prioritize its resources on the poorest of the poor and avoid providing emergency poverty relief assistance to those who are not needy.
Many business people, wealthy merchants and property owners have come off the lists and interestingly very few people are complaining as the vast majority realize that the new system is much fairer. In this regard, the poverty survey represents a great improvement over the former system.
In Lebanon there have also been growing protests against the Agency. These too partly reflect refugee frustration over service and budget limitations, questions about Agency priorities, and complaints about corruption. There has been recurrent tension over what the Agency can or cannot afford to provide in a country where refugees are systematically discriminated, and where (unlike other UNRWA areas of operation) they have only severely restricted access to national health, education, and social welfare services.
For years, hospitalization and tertiary healthcare have been a particularly difficult issue. On the one hand, such care is often beyond the remit humanitarian agencies operating in the developing world. On the other hand, UNRWA acts as the long-term service provider for disadvantaged Palestinians in (middle-income) Lebanon, in a context where little public sector exists, where Palestinian refugees are barred from most public services, and where poor refugees can scarcely afford the high costs of Lebanese private medicine. Only 5% or so of refugees have health insurance in a country with expensive (but efficient) private health care. Refugees are also barred from employment in most (syndicated) professions, and most work in seasonal, temporary, and informal labour market positions with little or no social protection. In essence, UNRWA is expected to fill the vacuum created by discrimination and the lack of Lebanese services to the refugees, while lacking the resources to do so.
Once again, however, a primary underlying dynamic to the protests is also a political one. Hamas has been growing markedly in political strength in Lebanon in recent years, and is now positioning itself to be the leading political force within many Palestinian refugee communities. (By contrast, Fateh—the subject of criticism by Hamas and others for its thuggish internal corruption and other inefficiencies—has been growing weaker.) Hamas would like to see its supporters in senior positions in the Agency in Lebanon. Hamas is suspicious of some UNRWA initiatives, such as summer youth projects. The UNRWA-Hamas tensions in Gaza also make themselves felt in Lebanon.
On top of all this, efforts to root out corruption within UNRWA and wasta (patronage) by Palestinian factions (for example, in hospital referrals and billings) have alienated a number of Palestinian political bosses/middlemen/entrepreneurs who benefited from earlier arrangements.
The result has been a rather nasty Hamas-encouraged campaign directed not only against the certain UNRWA programs, but also against UNRWA senior staff. In refugee camps in Sidon and in Tyre, violent threats from some groups forced UNRWA to suspect its summer camps, although these went ahead elsewhere with considerable local refugee support. Anonymous pamphlets and emails from the “Palestinian campaign to topple the General Director of UNRWA in Lebanon” and the “Palestinian popular and public committees and civil society organizations in Lebanon” have circulated accusing the UNRWA leadership of all manner of corruption and evil plots, while protesters have accused the Agency and its senior staff of having established a “black operations room to run a suspicious project and to implement international schemes targeting refugees in Lebanon.” According to one press statement last month:
Going further in devoiding the professional and institutional role of the UNRWA in Lebanon in “relief and work” of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, [the Director of UNRWA Affairs for Lebanon’s] strategy imposed on the UNRWA a new role that was carefully set in secrecy, to become a suspicious political and intelligence-gathering role, through employing a very large number of foreigners in useless vacancies that cover up for suspicious roles and tasks that infringe on the interest and issues of the Palestinians, and on the stability, security and sovereignty of the hosting Lebanese country; as many informed sources from the UNRWA told us. Else, who knows what takes place in the third floor of the UNRWA’s main office in Lebanon, and how many foreign employees are there, what are their real tasks, and their salaries, and is it true that these salaries are funded by their countries as [the Director] claimed, or it is dedicated from the UNRWA’s services budget, which is the truth. Then why also there was a new office in this floor named “Front Office” that encapsulates a large number of these employees and some little Arab ones, distributed on many sensitive divisions like the operational support division that includes OSO jobs, that all UNRWA employees say it is useless, and the protection division that is crowded with foreign employees while its role is unknown, and the communication division that is actually the media and psychological operations room of the general manager to display his claimed achievements, distort facts, and deceive the local and international public opinion. This office is considered the dark room of the general manager, who runs it directly by himself, and through it he manages all non-clean operations and procedures, with the aid of his consultants and informers. On the other hand, the regional directors and officers of central divisions have no authorities or powers, and their roles are restricted to execute the orders of the “Front Office”.
What also could be said about the recent appointment of communication officers in the areas of the Palestinian refugees camps? These officers collect security, social and cultural data from the camps and its surroundings, under innocent titles, but in coordination with the American Embassy in Beirut that is directly supervised by the US State Department; the salaries of these officers are paid by the USAID agency, according to informed Palestinian sources.
Finally, and in accordance with the foreign directions and desires of “ending” the issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the general manager of UNRWA’s field office in Lebanon is on external missions, here and there, inside and outside Lebanon, exploiting all the resources of the UNRWA, partly in public and mostly in secrecy, to carry out the immigration and settlement projects targeting the right of return of the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon.
The general manager of UNRWA’s field office in Lebanon and his team, have succeeded in diverting this agency from a relief and works agency that provides the Palestinian refugees with their vital needs and responds to their just rights they have long claimed and called for, to a security intelligence agency and a political player that serves foreign interests, and satisfies the greedy desires of corrupt avaricious contractors who are not disgraced by doing this at the expense of the suffering of the Palestinian refugees dying at the hospital doors, and at the expense of the displaced generations of Naher Al-Bared camp, and at the expense of our poor families and deprived students.
..etc, etc. In a country where people sometimes get shot at or blown up, it is easy to see how dangerous such inflammatory rhetoric could be.
Hamas has been explicit in its support for the current anti-UNRWA campaign, with one Hamas official noting:
We in the Hamas movement and the popular committees and community have held a series of popular movements, protests, strikes and contacts with the Lebanese and Palestinian authorities to put pressure on UNRWA to improve its services and fulfill our obligations towards the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Now, we were able to form a broad framework includes most of the Palestinian forces, national, Islamic and popular committees and the civil and the task of this framework for shuttle broad public to pressure the administration of UNRWA in order to improve their services and stop the waste and corruption.
Hamas is likely focusing its attacks against the management of UNRWA because an attack on UNRWA itself would be less likely to garner support among refugees as a whole. The refugees themselves—having suffered from discrimination, persecution, and more than a few foreign plots of the years—may be inclined to believe some of the claims of international conspiracy, however doubtful they sound to outside observers.
Most other Palestinian factions have declined to support the anti-UNRWA campaign or have even lent the Agency a degree of tacit support. However most are also afraid of being seen as inadequately defending refugee interests at a time of current or potential budget-related service cutbacks. Fateh leaders are divided and few of them would seek to jeopardise their own positions by coming out in favour of UNRWA. Fateh also doesn’t want to stick its neck out because it does not want to become a target, and because it knows that it too is unable to provide more assistance.
Unlike in Gaza, moreover, in Lebanon UNRWA has less ability to push back. The rather chaotic environment of many Palestinian camps in Lebanon makes it potentially dangerous for UNRWA staff to implement programmes in the face of threats. Unlike Gaza, where Hamas is the government and where it needs to ultimately needs to be seen to uphold security and the rule of law, there are a lot fewer “rules” of any sort in places like Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.
In Syria, a very different “operational environment” faces the Agency. There the primary challenge to UNRWA and its staff is that of providing services at a time when much of the country has been swept by protests, the partial collapse of government authority, violence, and repression. Many refugees themselves are increasingly sympathetic to the protesters, which complicates matters further. In this highly-charged environment, even well-meaning actions by the Agency can easily be misinterpreted.
All of this, of course, is on top of the “usual” aspects of UNRWA’s complex operational environment: chronic budget shortfalls, efforts by some members of the US Congress to cut support to the Agency, adverse economic conditions in many areas of operations, and—most importantly—the absence of any meaningful peace process, and thus little prospect of a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue any time soon.
Some of the protests have raised real issues that deserve further debate and attention. Refugee concerns could also be turned into messages that would assist the Agency to raise funds. However, that isn’t what is happening. Instead, the nature of the attacks on UNRWA risk distracting it from needed reforms and innovation, while hampering its ability to raise badly-needed funds. Many of the political motivations behind the protests are not aimed at improving services, but rather intimidating a UN humanitarian agency and shifting local intra-Palestinian political balances of power.
In the end, the refugees themselves could be the biggest losers.