UN's role in Gaza rises among the rubble

By: AP
By: AP

JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – Crouching against piled mattresses in a room crammed with refugees, Bissan Abu al-Eish focused on her homework, blocking out the relentless shrieks of dozens of toddlers and the stench of overflowing latrines.

"I'm so happy to be studying," said the 9-year-old girl, bent over the new textbook she received this weekend when classes resumed for 200,000 Gaza children at United Nations facilities.

Beyond being schooled by the U.N., Abu al-Eish and her seven siblings eat the agency's food, wear its clothing and now live in one of its buildings after their own house was leveled during Israeli bombardments on Gaza.

Hamas may be politically in charge of the Gaza Strip, but it's to the U.N.'s relief agency that the majority of the 1.4 million Gazans turn for health care, garbage collection, food assistance and just about every other service usually provided by a state.

With much of the territory devastated by Israel's latest military offensive, the agency's job is bound to get even bigger.

Many expect the U.N.'s agency for Palestinians to take the lead in reconstruction, though its role is currently limited to the refugee camps that house more than 1 million of Gaza's population. The U.N. spearheading efforts to rebuild Gaza could open a door to international donors, many of whom don't want to give Hamas money because the group doesn't recognize Israel and is considered a terror organization by the U.S. and European Union.

It is estimated that $2 billion is needed to repair the 21,000 homes damaged or destroyed, along with factories and government buildings, in the three-week Israeli attack to end Hamas' rocket-firing. Fundraising has hardly begun, and the question of how the money will be funneled remains unanswered.

"We're delivering the services of a state, until the state is established," John Ging, the head of Gaza operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, told The Associated Press this weekend.

At the same time, it must exist side-by-side with Hamas' government — and take care to maintain its neutrality, which some Israelis question.

In one classroom Saturday, when UNRWA schools reopened, a Palestinian teacher was filmed asking children about their trauma during the war. The unidentified teacher then told the children that Palestinians have to "wage war against them (Israelis) until they leave their land," and asked her students, aged about 8, how they should react.

Two children in the class suggested hurling stones or rockets back at Israel. "Okay," the teacher said, apparently summing up her class' position. "We throw rockets at them, we throw stones at them," she said.

Ging said such behavior is "completely unacceptable," and will be "dealt with in the most severest of fashions." He said the teacher would likely be removed once identified. Teachers have been fired from UNRWA in the past for incitement.

Ging said that following the latest war, which ended Jan. 17, UNRWA briefed teachers — themselves often victims of the fighting — on how to channel the children's grief away from revenge and violence. In schools across the territory, teachers led students in games to ease their trauma and encouraged them to talk about lost classmates to deal with their deaths.

"We're in a battle with extremism here in Gaza," said Ging, adding that UNRWA schools aim to "guide (children) to a civilized place."

Robert Blecher, the senior Middle-East analyst for the Washington-based International Crisis Group think-tank, says UNRWA's staff comes from a cross-section of society and it's "logical that this staff reflects the political spectrum of Gaza, of which Hamas is obviously an important component."

"But I've never seen any evidence of bias towards Hamas in any UNRWA actions or distributions," he said.

The 60-year-old agency has been in Gaza so long, and its institutions are so deeply entrenched, that it has been able to conduct its operations with little contact with the local government for years — even before Hamas came to power.

Israeli officials have in the past been critical of some aspects of UNRWA's operations, especially in the field of education, pointing to anti-Israeli content in past textbooks. The books have since been replaced, and 2003 and 2004 studies commissioned by the U.S. State Department found that the texts did not contain material promoting hatred of Israel.

Hamas praises UNRWA for providing Gazans what it can't. "We hugely appreciate their great efforts to help our people," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told AP.

UNRWA was created in 1949 to take care of Palestinian refugees and operates in camps across the Middle East. In Gaza, it has some 17,000 permanent or temporary staff. It has a budget of $350 million and provides services — including food distribution — in the camps. Many non-refugees also benefit, sending their children to its schools.

The organization is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from countries, its largest donors include the United States, the European Union, Sweden and Britain. Louis Michel, the European Union's humanitarian chief, said the EU is by far the largest overall donor to the Palestinians.

Ging says UNRWA is able to take on the daunting task of rebuilding Gaza refugee camps. But, he says, this will only be possible if Israel allows the blockaded territory to receive enough of the humanitarian aid already piling up at its border.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog said Israel is adequately opening the crossings.

"Humanitarian aid is entering Gaza at a rate of 150 trucks a day, which is the maximum amount of aid that the Palestinians can absorb at this time," Herzog, who oversees what is allowed into the territory, told AP on Monday. Israel and Egypt have largely sealed their crossings into Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007.

The American Near East Refugee Aid said it has delivered more than $2.5 million of food and medical supplies. On Monday, Michel announced euro58 million ($74 million) in emergency aid for Palestinians affected by the conflict, but insisted the money wouldn't go through the Hamas government.

"Hamas is a terrorist movement," he told reporters while standing in front of a food warehouse at UNRWA's main compound, funded by the EU and largely destroyed by Israeli shelling.

This leaves UNRWA to provide most emergency aid — and puts it in a key position when funding starts coming in for rebuilding.

How fast the border could open, however, remains unclear. Israel says any agreement to fully open Gaza's borders must include guarantees Hamas will be prevented from smuggling new weapons in.

Bissan Abu al-Eish seemed far from such concerns.

"I'm worried about all these new words," the little girl said, skimming through her new Arabic textbook in the U.N. youth community center where she now lives, crammed with 42 other families from Jebaliya refugee camp.

Thousands took refuge in UNRWA schools during the war. Most have since left. But Nofal Abu al-Eish, Bissan's father, said his family of 10 had nowhere to go since their house was destroyed. The $150 given by UNRWA to refugees to relocate in rentals aren't enough, he said.

"And anyhow, there's not a room left to rent here," he said.

His wife Munira said the food rations distributed by UNRWA staff only represent half of what her family needs to eat.

"But I can't even think how we would live if they weren't there," she said.


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