UNRWA: Escalation is a 'recipe for disaster' in Gaza

UN agency says it is poised to continue its work, even if the violence increased.

supplies truck 298.88 (photo credit: )
supplies truck 298.88
(photo credit: )
An escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would push more families in Gaza under the poverty line and put them in need of food and cash assistance from the already resource-strained UNRWA, officials from the agency warned Monday. The continuing blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, coupled with the end of the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire was "a recipe for disaster" for the coastal territory's impoverished population and would further impede the international organization's mandate for human development work, said Jerusalem-based UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshasha. But the international relief agency, which provides education, health care, social services and emergency aid to Palestinian refugees, also said it was poised to continue its work, even if the violence increased. "UNRWA hopes that the situation will not escalate to the point that it will be an all-out confrontation, but in any given situation... UNRWA will continue to deliver its services and will expect to do that in any future developments in the region," Mshasha said. On Friday, the six-month truce between Israel and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip expired. Israeli leaders have indicated that the military could move beyond air strikes against terrorists and act with more force, even possibly sending ground forces into the territory. Israeli officials said they were doing their best to enable the Palestinians to obtain humanitarian aid, but that the border crossings were often closed because they and their personnel had been attacked by terrorists. "The source of this plight is the violence launched by Hamas in a systematic and ideological effort to sabotage the peace process and to create an Islamic dictatorship which will subvert and endanger the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Israel," said Yigal Palmor, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry. Hamas took no heed of the plight of their own brethren, "and just as they have used human shields in their terror operations, they are now taking the whole of Gaza's population as one huge human shield," he said. Despite major spikes in violence since the eruption of the second intifada in 2000, UNRWA continued its operations to the best of its ability, Mshasha said. "If anything, in these different periods, UNRWA's work increased," he said. When asked whether UNRWA would still operate in Gaza if the IDF reconquered the Strip, Mshasha noted the organization had operated for decades when Israel controlled the district. "The powers that be in Gaza do not change its mandate," he said. "Irrespective of any political or military situation that might unfold in Gaza, UNRWA's mandate is to continue to deliver its services to the population" it serves. But the organization's level of preparedness is not what it was in 2000 due to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and movement restrictions, he said. An escalation in violence would exasperate an already difficult situation, he added. Today, 51.8 percent of the population in the Gaza Strip lives in poverty. Last week UNRWA officials suspended emergency food distribution to 750,000 refugees who depend largely on this aid to sustain their families, due to a limited amount of supplies being allowed in, Mshasha said. Due to a lack of cash in the Gaza Strip, the organization last week also suspended cash subsidies to 94,000 refugees who have no breadwinner over the age of 18 and are considered "the poorest of the poor." "They have nobody to fend for them these days and that is a key concern to UNRWA," Mshasha said. "This is happening at a time that UNRWA is projecting serious financial difficulties in securing what it needs" for its 2009 operations. Financial difficulties have arisen as a result of more refugees joining the ranks and the global financial crisis affecting the level of donations. There was "also room for improving" Arab donations to the organization, he said. "The United Nations, as we always do, condemns the firing of rockets into Israel," said Chris Gunness, another UNRWA spokesman. "But hundreds of thousands of hungry, angry and impoverished people on Israel's borders is not in the interest of anyone in Israel, and it's certainly not in the interest of anyone who believes in peace." In response, Palmor said that "hundreds and thousands of frightened and angry Israelis living under constant mortar and rocket threat is not in the interest of Palestinians or in the interest of peace either. "Surely, they don't expect life to go on as usual with Israelis living under these unbearable and intolerable death threats," he said. Palmor stressed that no government decision had yet been made regarding a possible offensive in Gaza. In the past, IDF incursions into the Strip have ended with Palestinian casualties but no long-term reduction in rocket fire. AP contributed to this report.