'UNRWA Watch' launches in Gaza

New Watchdog says it aims to exert pressure on donor states, not the UN refugee agency; Residents outraged with UN agency's programming cuts.

UNRWA summer camp in Gaza 311 (R) (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
UNRWA summer camp in Gaza 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
A new watchdog organization has been launched in Gaza to monitor the performance of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which has recently decreased its services to the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Aptly named UNRWA Watch, the new grassroots group will monitor the work of the UN agency in the fields of education, health, housing, small businesses and employment services. The group’s secretary general Issam Adnan told reporters it would open five offices in the Gaza Strip with the head office in Gaza City and would issue biannual reports to be distributed nationally and internationally.
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UNRWA currently provides education, food and employment to some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. It is almost completely funded by voluntary contributions from UN member states.
Gaza residents and Hamas officials voiced their outrage at the UN Agency in late July, after it announced a plan to cut programming and food distribution in Gaza due to a budgetary deficit of $50 million. UNRWA was forced to halt all activities in its Gaza offices on July 21, as local residents blocked the entrance with trucks, protesting the budget cut.
"People in Gaza feel that UNRWA is trying to exert political pressure [on Hamas] and that it's not a matter of the organization's financial capabilities," Ayman Shaheen, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told The Media Line.
Samir Mudalaleh, a member of UNRWA Watch's executive committee told the Palestinian Safa News Agency that his organization did not intend to target the UN agency but rather the donor states that fund its activities.
"We know that the crisis is not financial but political, with the aim of transferring the services [given by UNRWA] to the Palestinian Authority and the refugee host countries," he told Safa.
UNRWA, for its part, denied that its services were cut for political reasons, citing security threats as one source of interference with its work. On Thursady, UNRWA announced it was suspending its activities in the West Bank city of Jenin indefinitely, following "continued threats" to its employees and staff in the area, Ma'an News Agency reported.
Shaheen, the Gaza political scientist, said he did not know who was funding UNRWA Watch, but noted that "secret competition" existed between the Hamas government and UNRWA in Gaza surrounding the organization's annual summer camps.
"The UNRWA summer camps, which draw more children than the Hamas camps, are attacked and ransacked every year," Shaheen said. "The Hamas government never arrested or tried any of the perpetrators, so naturally UNRWA feels that it's under attack."
Ali Abu-Shahla, secretary general of the Gaza Business Association, criticized the establishment of the new watchdog.
"I do not support this initiative. I think it will reflect negatively on the Palestinian people and on the work of UNRWA in the future," Abu-Shahla told The Media Line. He added that grievances regarding UNRWA's work should be raised directly with the UN, and not through an independent Palestinian group.
"This is the result of an unhealthy relationship between Hamas and UNRWA," he added. "Otherwise, why is the supervision only taking place in Gaza when UNRWA is active in the West Bank as well?"
Asked about the new group, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness told The Media Line: "We know absolutely nothing about it."