Gazans struggle as cash crisis worsens

UNRWA forced to suspend cash assistance programme in Gaza as funding falls short

The consequences of suspending UNRWA’s cash assistance programme in Gaza, which was aimed at helping tens of thousands of people with rebuilding homes and provide rental subsidies for the homeless, have been “dramatic”, according to Chris Gunness, the agency’s spokesperson.

“Since the conflict started in Gaza we have received $335m for conflict related assistance. Donors have been generous, but unfortunately this does not cover all the needs; hence we were forced to suspend the cash progamme for rent and rebuilding, which are among the most urgent needs,” said Gunness. This required a total of $720m, with UNRWA falling short of $585m for that programme. The agency “had no choice” but to suspend it, as “there was just no cash in the bank,” Gunness added.

In October, international donors met at a Cairo conference and pledged $5.4bn in aid for Palestinians. Half of that amount was meant to be funneled into rebuilding and other works in Gaza, following last year’s Israeli offensive that left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead and displaced half a million more. The war also damaged or destroyed 96,000 Palestine refugee family homes, leading to a homelessness crisis in the densely populated strip.

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the near east, has been warning the donor community for months that it would be forced to suspend the programme at the end of January if the funds weren’t transferred, said Gunness.

“We have already made endless appeals. Donors at every level know exactly what we are asking for. Meanwhile, as we warned, the consequences of the suspension of this programme have been dramatic. The day after the suspension, the UN’s political office in Gaza, the Office of the Special Co-ordinator, Robert Serry, was attacked. The sense of disappointment, frustration, anger and foreboding in Gaza is palpable. This is in no small part fuelled by the gap between the huge pledges made in Cairo and the reality on the ground,” he said.

On February 27, Oxfam International warned of the scale of “despair and destruction” in the Gaza strip, estimating that rebuilding of vital structures could take up to 100 years if the Israeli blockade continued.

Israel places restrictions on imports of concrete, cement, iron bars and other materials into Gaza, forcing aid agencies to build temporary houses out of existing materials to provide shelter for the homeless.

While funding for Gaza’s reconstructions continues to be slow, other organisations deliver different forms of assistance to help those affected by war. The Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) provided more than 20,000 at risk children medicine, medical supplies, food, clothing, mattresses and other humanitarian support, as well as sending children abroad for free medical care, according to President and CEO Steve Sosebee.

“Overall, the challenge is to get the world to care about the people of Gaza and to not stand idle, but to help support ways to heal the wounds of war there,” said Sosebee. “There are logistical issues for getting doctors into Gaza, as Egypt is closed and the Israeli border requires permits. There are problems building a cancer department when there is a lack of cement, and electricity is cut every day for many hours, making work hard. Infrastructure has been destroyed and the entire population is traumatized, as you can imagine after ending an onslaught that killed over 500 children.”

There is an urgent need for housing and funds for rebuilding thousands of homes, to pay for salaries for teachers and doctors, with many not paid for months, said Sosebee. “Generally, there is a need in all aspects of help and support for poor and marginalized children and others in Gaza, particularly those who were directly impacted by the attacks. In every facet of life in Gaza - education, health care, social support, housing - there is a critical situation and an emergency,” he added.

PCRF runs the only pediatric cardiac surgery programme in Gaza, and started the first and only pediatric cancer centre there. The non-profit organisation is working on distributing over 400 pediatric specialized wheelchairs and shipping nearly $1m worth of cancer drugs for patients who need treatment.

“We are sending in volunteer surgery teams from all over the world to operate on children, and running sponsorship programs for marginalized children, as well as a psycho-social program for children, an orphan sponsorship programme, and many other projects to help alleviate the needs of children there,” Sosebee said.

Photo credit: UNRWA