By Palestine Center Interns
With the illegal blockade on Gaza nearing its eleventh year, more questions about the role of the UN and its humanitarian agencies in sustaining the blockade have been rising in the political arena. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has been praised for its exceptional work related to education, where the literacy rate in Palestine is deemed one of the highest in the Middle East. With regard to this rate, Gaza’s residents constitute the largest percentage, a huge accomplishment given the ongoing brutal siege on Gaza. Although UN agencies have achieved considerable successes in the education sector, other aspects of life, such as economic development, haven’t experienced the same type of advancement and continue to dwindle because of the aid culture forced on Gaza. Countries like the United Kingdom and Italy have pledged millions of dollars in aid to Gaza through the United Nations, but this support does not help end the blockade on its own. International organizations have played a major role in nurturing a culture of reliance on foreign aid that has continuously sustained the blockade on Gaza and the occupation of Palestine as a whole. As a result, diplomatic action is required to find a long-lasting solution to Israel’s policies. Since the start of the blockade, the UN has been active in Gaza, following an agenda that in fact perpetuates the blockade and produces negative outcomes.
One such program that has further entrenched the blockade is the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)’ Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) .The GRM was employed in Gaza as a result of the last series of devastating attacks in 2014. Upon its launch, the GRM was supposed to be a temporary agreement between Israel and Palestine to allow materials into Gaza for reconstruction. The GRM also promised a gradual easement on Israeli restrictions and better conditions so that Gaza’s residents could eventually experience a life of dignity and self-reliance. However, three years later and the GRM seems to have become more permanent. In actuality, hardly any construction has taken place, and the mechanism is “enforcing aspects of the illegal blockade” imposed by Israel. Since 1948, Palestinians have been promised a right to return to their homes. Those who fled during the 1948 war thought they were only leaving temporarily, but their exile has persisted for decades. Accordingly, the GRM plan comes as no surprise, for it constitutes an additional step of many by the international community to suppress Palestinians and promise them reform throughout the years, but never accomplishing it through concrete actions.
Rather than urging others to open Gaza to the world, the international community is essentially saying donate to Gaza as a way of mitigating the siege. This position automatically diverts attention away from the political dimensions of the blockade and turns the issue into a completely humanitarian crisis that is devoid of any politics. In reality, the persisting siege on Gaza has a humanitarian component which is inherently intertwined with and is a result of a political arrangement. Disconnecting the latter from the former creates a condition where the international community ceases to look at the blockade as a pressing issue that needs to end through righteous collective action and pressure on Israel. It has to end righteously because Gaza has suffered for more than ten years without effective attempts directed at a political, legal solution to the crisis. Rather, it allows the siege to be viewed as merely an abnormal phenomenon whose consequences can only be alleviated from a humanitarian standpoint and not a just political resolution.
Ignoring the political aspect of the siege not only prolongs it but also hinders the capacity through which humanitarian aid organizations can operate. With the oppressive political structures placed by Israel, such as checkpoints, which obstruct the passage of goods or people in and out of Gaza, the very essence of only targeting the crisis through material aid becomes undermined in itself. For example, the restrictions placed on NGOs stagnate their plans and the limitations on construction materials permitted slow down UN programs, making humanitarian operations greatly ineffective. So, how will the massive amount of work done to help Gaza be successful if it solely revolves around donations that create a diversion away from a political settlement? The reason that humanitarian assistance is gravely needed in the first place stems from the blockade. The closure of Gaza’s sea, air, and land passageways stops Gaza from being able to sustain itself independently through fishing or trade and forces its population to depend on food stamps.
This is the case because Israel’s oppressive structures of governing the Palestinian territories impede the ability of this “soothing” foreign aid mechanism from fulfilling even its very own, optimal goals. As a result of the aid culture, Gaza’s society is experiencing two critical tendencies that have been rising with the protraction of the blockade. The first tendency involves people feeling less inclined to find jobs, and the second is their increasing interest in joining extremist groups.
Since 80 percent of Gaza’s almost two million residents rely on foreign aid in the form of food stamps and money, the majority of aid recipients have become less inclined to find employment because the food stamps provide a secure source of income that enables them to survive. It is true that Gaza does not have many opportunities for employment, but the notion of demanding this right to work is starting to diminish, for food stamps are viewed as an acceptable replacement for a viable job. Hence, the aid culture tends to normalize the already substandard living conditions of Gaza’s residents and forces them to become numb to what their most basic living standards should be.
The international community’s focus on helping Gaza through donations has harmed the youth more than anyone. Increasingly, the best candidates for extremist organizations and ideologies are the youth of Gaza who cannot escape their small, prison-like surroundings. Joining extremist groups becomes more appealing when there is no employment or activities that the youth can immerse themselves in at this critical age. Those who have witnessed the annihilation of their entire families certainly become more apt to turn to violence as a way of taking revenge for their loved ones. When young adults in Gaza compare their lives to others living abroad, they realize the difference between being treated as a creature who should do its best to survive the next day in relation to a human, who lives every day to the fullest without stopping to think twice about surviving one more day. Both aforementioned tendencies add to the severity of the blockade and are a result of the weakness of the UN in taking appropriate measures against Israel’s actions.
Starting in 2009, UN Resolution 1860 was supposed to guarantee the flow of goods and people to and from Gaza as a way of soothing the economic and humanitarian crisis. The Oslo Accords promised a “safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank that connects both areas as one, enabling free trade and the freedom of movement among Palestinians. Despite these diplomatic efforts, the blockade has not been lifted. In addition to the 80 percent of the population who rely on foreign humanitarian aid, unemployment rates have reached 42 percent. It has been eleven years since the blockade began, and the situation has not changed one bit for Gaza’s residents. In fact, it has only worsened and will continue to worsen so long as the UN turns a blind eye against the inhumane siege that is slowly depleting life in Gaza.
Unfortunately, the UN has not succeeded in upholding the laws that Israel is supposed to abide by. Rather, it is merely providing temporary material relief that only furthers the siege. While it has an obligation to ensure that international treaties and laws are followed by member states, it has consistently failed to protect the basic rights of Palestinians. Sending aid into Gaza and campaigning to gather donations from the international community is not a viable solution. The problem needs to be solved from its roots. The way to do that is through political arbitration from the UN and its counterparts to end the brutal blockade on Gaza.