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Don't Forget Gaza

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It is impossible not to be touched by the apocalyptic scenes emerging from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, besieged and cut off for months. The images are at once epic and personal. Row upon row of gaunt faces, serried ranks of grimy, raged figures; the delicate, hunger-ravaged features of children waiting in line for an UNRWA food parcel; the face of a mother creased in grief for a deceased child; tears of joy as a father is reunited with a long-lost daughter; these are the vignettes of inhumanity that have become the regular fare of nightly news bulletins.

While the cameras have followed the conflict as they ever do, aid budgets have followed the cameras. International funding abhors a news vacuum. Donors like their cash to be in the news headlines and so UNRWA's appeal to the international community to fund our emergency work in Syria to the tune of over 400 million U.S. dollars, has found a generous response among donor governments. That's the relatively good news and we are grateful.

The bad news is that UNRWA works in other places where, like Syria, there are emergencies that have become protracted, but from where, unlike Syria, the cameras have moved on. Gaza is one of those places.

In the last six months of 2013, the unemployment rate in Gaza went from just under 28 percent to over 38 percent -- in six months. For refugees the official unemployment rate is 41 percent, for youth 56 percent and for refugee women an astounding 88 percent. The criteria used for this data means that underemployment is not captured; persons aged 15 years and above who worked at least one hour per week are considered employed and so not included in these statistics. Imagine for a moment what that has meant for families in Gaza.

While there are no images from Gaza as compelling as those from Yarmouk -- nor is the situation that desperate -- the people here having been living under siege-like conditions for more than six years. It is this blockade which was imposed in earnest in June 2007 that destroyed Gaza's previously dynamic, productive and trade-oriented economy, along with its capacity to create jobs. The vast majority of the population has been pushed into food insecurity, with no other choice but reliance on assistance. Until the blockade is lifted and access to Gaza's traditional markets -- the West Bank and Israel -- is secured, any sustainable recovery of the local economy remains elusive. The vicious cycle of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency, and consequently the de-development of the Gaza Strip, will continue. A graph of economic volatility for Gaza's economy over the past decade looks like Liberia or Sierra Leone's.

The recent dramatic deterioration in the situation here was triggered by the changes in Egypt last year and the closure of the tunnels that linked Gaza and its Southern neighbor. These tunnels formed a necessary lifeline for Gaza given the poverty here -- goods are cheaper from Egypt, particularly fuel and basic foods -- and for items that Israel will not allow to freely enter, the most important being construction materials. Material for the private sector came through the tunnels at the rate of some 7,500 MT per day, fueling the only portion of the economy that was creating any jobs. The closure of the tunnels has meant the effective end of private sector construction.

UNRWA and other international actors could make up some of that job loss through our own construction projects but we have been limited in our ability to do so by Israel practices. In the third quarter of 2013 UNRWA construction projects generated over 5,000 jobs, but imports of construction materials were suspended in October 2013, and as of February 2014 only some of our projects were re-approved by the Israeli authorities and resumed. We have almost USD $40 million worth of projects Israel had already approved that are ready to go and an additional 38 projects worth over USD $111 million pending approval from Israeli authorities so we can import the necessary construction material. Given the opportunity we could put thousands of Gazans back to work and reduce reliance on aid to survive.

UNRWA is mandated to provide services to the Palestine refugees in Gaza, who make up more than 70 percent of the population of some 1.8 million. In trying to meet the humanitarian demands created by this manmade crisis, UNRWA provides food assistance to over 800,000 people; two out of every three refugees and almost half the overall population. In 2000, when the economy was functioning more normally, only 80,000 refugees required food assistance from us. We provide this assistance based on need, and vigorously target to ensure it gets to the neediest, but given the changes here over the past months we expect our food aid caseload to increase by 10 to 20 percent over the course of this year, to near one million people.

At a time when circumstances would dictate an expansion of aid we are facing a hole in our emergency budget of about $30 million USD. That's about a quarter of our overall budget, mainly for food aid. Should no additional, unexpected contributions materialize, UNRWA will be forced to significantly cut back its emergency operations in the Gaza Strip. We have already had to take very difficult decisions, including the suspension of our school feeding program, which provided one meal per day to the nearly quarter of a million UNRWA students in Gaza.

Donor fatigue is understandable. UNRWA would prefer to spend money on human development in Gaza, particularly our education program, as opposed to emergency aid to mitigate the impact of man-made policies such as the illegal blockade. But the Agency has no choice but to continue to assist those paying for the consequences of these unresolved political issues.

I end on a note of warning. We have repeatedly seen desperation in Gaza lead to violence. There are rockets which we in the UN repeatedly condemn, but there are many other forms of violence in Gazan society that are related directly and indirectly to the economic predicament of the people here. We in UNRWA have ourselves been the subject of violent attack because of perceived service cuts. At a time when the peace process is on everyone's lips it behooves us all to address the underlying causes of Gaza's violence, but barring the political will to accomplish this, we must ensure that basic humanitarian needs continue to be met.