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UNRWA funding crisis puts 500k Palestinian children at risk

A budget deficit of $101 million threatens to delay the start of the academic year in UNRWA schools. At a time of rising extremism, such an outcome could have consequences for states across the Middle East, the agency says.

Palestinians stand in front of the entrance of Remal Elementary UNRWA School which is used as a temporary shelter for people from the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Gaza City on July 13, 2014. People from northern Gaza left their homes after Israel dropped leaflets warning them to evacuate. Israeli attacks have killed at least 166 Palestinians, including 30 children. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinians stand in front of the entrance of Remal Elementary UNRWA School which at the time was being used as a temporary shelter for people from the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Gaza City on July 13, 2014. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, is facing a budget deficit of $101 million for the coming year, the agency says. The shortfall threatens to delay the start of the academic year for UNRWA-run schools. At risk, too, are psychosocial support programs that are administered within UNRWA schools (those offered in health centers will continue to run).

The scale of the crisis is unprecedented and has the potential to affect enormous numbers of Palestinian refugees: 500,000 children and 22,000 teachers are supposed to be attending or instructing at over 600 UNRWA schools throughout Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Seven thousand youths at eight vocational training schools across the region also face the postponement of their academic year.

The current funding shortage is the worst UNRWA has faced in its 65 years of operations. However, raising sufficient finances is a perpetual struggle that has become increasingly difficult as the number of refugees continues to grow. (Unlike refugees elsewhere in the world under the career of UNHCR, Palestinian refugees under the care of UNRWA tend to pass on their refugee status through multiple generations. Uniquely, that means that the Palestinian refugee population has actually increased over time.)

The lack of money puts immense strain on UNRWA services across the Middle East, leaving the organization vulnerable to sudden drastic deteriorations — such as in Syria’s Yarmouk camp, which earlier this year saw UNRWA stretched to breaking point — and the cumulative effect of a years-long blockade and repeated devastating wars, as in the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness touched on these points while explaining what has led to the current shortage of funds.

“The need of our refugees in Syria has increased exponentially due to the five-year civil war and 45,000 refugees from Syria have now turned up in Lebanon,” Gunness told +972 Magazine. “In Gaza, the political failure to lift the blockade has seen the number of people coming to us for food assistance go from 80,000 in the year 2000 to 860,000 today.”

The situation in Gaza is particularly stark: nearly half of the 500,000 children dependent on UNRWA schools live in the Strip. Teachers at Gaza’s UNRWA schools face losing their jobs at a time when unemployment in the Strip is, at 43 percent, the highest in the world. The potential impact of any delay to the school year in Gaza would be especially acute, explains Gunness, given the desperate need for normalcy in a society where even a first grader has lived through three wars. School-based interventional programs for children who experience severe distress following conflict would also become unavailable.

Young school girls standing in the foreground of the UNRWA-run all-girls' school. Ash Shati Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, February 25, 2012. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Young school girls standing in front of an UNRWA-run all-girls’ school. Ash Shati Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, February 25, 2012. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Some in Gaza have already been affected by UNRWA’s funding crisis. Eman, a 23-year-old resident of Jabaliya camp in north Gaza City, has not had her yearly teaching contract renewed. “I have heard that some of the old teachers will lose their jobs,” she told +972 in an interview, “and that the number of students in one class will increase to 60.”

Shrouq, another resident of Jabaliya camp, has seen her siblings spend years studying for exams, only to remain unemployed because of financial shortages at UNRWA. “My sister is a science teacher and my brother is a physician, but both of them are unemployed,” she told +972. “You study medicine for 8 years and then you find there are no jobs… You’ve just wasted eight years of your life.”

BADIL, a Palestinian NGO that advocates for refugee rights, issued a statement in response to news of the UNRWA deficit. While concurring with UNRWA’s assessment that the ever-growing refugee population is a primary contributor to the situation, BADIL also blamed the “fundamentally flawed and – ultimately – entirely unsustainable approach to the protection of Palestinian refugees.”

“The pressing question,” the statement continues, “must surely not be how the steady increase in demand for essential services can be met, but rather how this demand can be reduced.”

For now, UNRWA is continuing with efforts to raise the necessary funds by the second week of August: this is when its commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, will have to make a final decision on whether to delay the coming school year. Until then, no one is in any doubt as to the potential risks posed by such an eventuality.

BADIL warns that the “funding gap will place further strain on host states which are themselves operating at full capacity and suffering from chronic underfunding in their protection of refugees.”

“At a time of rising extremism, when extremist groups are in recruitment mode, you are going to have half a million kids on the streets of the Middle East who should be in UN schools,” Gunness added.

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    1. Pedro X

      The UNWRA funding crisis could be solved easily by requiring Palestinian leaders to return money obtained by all pervasive corruption in Palestinian governments. Fatah and PA leaders stole and skimmed billions of dollars out of donor country contributions. The Telegraph on August 11, 2014 wrote of Hamas leaders’ get rich at the expense of the Palestinian population:

      “Today, Marzook is considered one of Hamas’s wealthiest billionaires. “Arab sources estimate his wealth at $2-3 billion,” Elad says.

      Another Hamas leader-turned-tycoon is Khaled Mashaal. “Estimates around the world are that Mashaal is currently worth $2.6 billion, but the numbers mentioned by the Arab commentators (based on their many sources) are much higher, varying from $2-5 billion invested in Egyptian and Persian Gulf banks, and some in real estate projects in the Persian Gulf countries,” Elad adds.

      The next tycoon on the list is Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “He is a scion of a family from the Al-Shati refugee camp, and his capital is estimated at $4 million,” Elad says, adding, “He registered most of his assets in the Gaza Strip in the name of his son-in-law, Nabil, and in the name of a dozen of his sons and daughters and a few less well known Hamas leaders. They all have homes in good neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip, where the value of every home is at least $1 million.”

      Another wealthy Hamas official – Iman Taha – is not on the organization’s highest levels, but he, too, (and other junior managers) is feeding from the trough. According to Elad, “He was a poor rebellious kid from the al-Borg refugee camp, but he recently built a home in central Gaza worth at least $1 million. He’s responsible for coordination between oversea Hamas and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and he’s not even a leading figure, but he’s already among the millionaires.”

      The question of where these officials got their money exposes the corrupt system used by Hamas through its control of the money pipelines in the Gaza Strip. They treated the money as their own personal possession. “Most of the money that went into the pockets of people in the Gaza Strip was obtained through tunnel deals and the creation of a flourishing smuggling market, which it is believed has created several hundred millionaires in the Gaza Strip, although most of the people there don’t live like that. The man pulling the strings from Egypt with the tunnels is none other than the number two man in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater. His connection with Hamas was ostensibly for Islamic religious purposes, but they actually built a prosperous business, which earned phenomenal profits,” Elad says.

      The Asharq Al-Awsat (Middle East) newspaper, one of the most prestigious in the Arab world, recently reported that at least 600 millionaires were living in the Gaza Strip – the same people sitting on the money pipelines there.

      Elad describes how the system worked and to how much money (huge amounts) Hamas leaders were exposed: “Senior Hamas leaders charged a 25% ‘tax’ and $2,000 on every disassembled vehicle coming through the tunnels. There are hundreds of smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza, and these are the types of tunnel Israel has been less busy in destroying, because Egypt has destroyed many of them. From June 2007 until 2010, $800 million in cash was transferred in tunnel deals (according to information from Hamas money traders). Hamas also taxes Gaza merchants on everything traded, from boxes of vegetables to luxury cars, and the leaders scoop the money into their pockets.”

      Another source of wealth for Hamas leaders was taking over land. “They took over land mainly near the sea in good areas, such as the former Gush Katif, then sold it. In effect, they are the cat guarding the cream – the land – so they were able to take over land and loot it for themselves,” Elad explains.

      In addition, there is a system in the Gaza Strip of fictitious recruitment of workers for Hamas for the purpose of obtaining pay slips from people overseas paying for it. “They get the payments from overseas according to the workers’ names. It has recently been discovered that there are hundreds of fictitious names of soldiers and officials supposedly in Hamas. Actually, the leaders and officials put the money in their own pockets,” Elad asserts.

      According to various sources, some of Mashaal’s money came from the “Syrian fund.” Elad explains: “According to these accusations, following an investigation by the US federal authorities, Mashaal was accused of embezzling the entire Syrian fund. There was a separate fund in Syria for Hamas; Mashaal controlled all the movements in the fund when he lived there. As soon as he left Damascus, he took the Syrian fund, which was worth several billion dollars, and distributed it to himself and others. It is believed that Hamas had $1.5-2.5 billion in assets in Syria, which Mashaal took.”

      In summary, Elad says, “This is corruption at the highest level… What has united the Palestinian leaders all throughout the years is the saying, ‘We have to get rich quick.’ This is how the regime sees it. Their leaders have no shame. Shortly after they got power, they took control of fuel, communications, and any other profitable sectors in the country. There are get-rich-quick schemes and corruption in Western society, too, but there it’s done sophisticatedly with envelopes of money and complex structures of bribery and the like. Among the Palestinians, they tell you straight out, ‘I want to get rich.’”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Mars Mercury

      The UN, like most organizations and institutions which supposedly support Palistinians, in reality set them up for continued failure

      Reply to Comment

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