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UNRWA’s Bitter Winter Solstice

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Damascus

At UNWRA offices around the Levant this Winter Solstice, the day which astronomically marks the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days, ‘winters midterm’, is not being celebrated as it has been since ancient times when festivals, gatherings, rituals feasting, singing, dancing, and bonfires were the norm. The winter solstice historically has been vitally important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to prepare during the previous nine months for dramatic rises in starvation, communicable diseases, and infant deaths due to hypothermia were particularly common during the first months of the winter, which became known as “the famine months” in the northern hemisphere.

Preparing for a tough next few months is what the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is doing these days and the UN Specialized Agency is working in the face of daunting odds. UNWRA was founded in 1949 and for more than 60 years it has been plagued by harassments, intimidation, and countless conspiracies to close it down waged by the international Zionist lobby increasingly trying to ‘put it out of its misery’ as Prime Minister Netanyahu recently demanded from the US Congress.

Many of UNWRA’s 30,000 employees, including those at the Beirut regional UNWRA HQ opposite Shatila Camp, as well as at the UNWRA HQ in Damascus on Mezzah boulevard where this observer is a regular visitor, talk these days about the grim link between the Syrian crisis and the conditions of over half a million Palestine refugees in UNWRA’s 57 camps, who have been living in exile for six decades. Other major concerns for UNWRA are the nearly one million Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, as well as the more than one million refugees in Gaza suffering from climatic conditions exacerbated by the brutal Zionist occupation of Palestine.

The UNRWA Syria Regional Crisis Response Plan for 2014, published this week sets out the Agency’s hoped for projects to strengthen the resilience of Palestine refugees, and to help them weather the current dangers of the frigid temperatures and lack of heat and sanitation. This winters solstice, the outlook for Palestine refugees from Syria is increasingly bleak in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, as communities, livelihoods, assets and support networks painstakingly built over decades are being destroyed.

Proportionally, displacement among Palestinians is much higher than that of Syrians and the threats to safe refuge in Syria combined with severely restricted options for flight has confronted Palestine refugees with unprecedented challenges. UNRWA emergency assistance is normally delivered as part of its well-established programs in health, education, community development, microfinance, relief, youth training and employment. Delivered by Palestinians staff, this support provides a critical source of community and family resilience and continuity in the face of growing hardship. Of the 540,000 Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria, about 270,000 are displaced in the country, and an estimated 85,000 have fled. Fifty-one thousand have reached Lebanon, 11,000 have identified themselves in Jordan, 5,000 are in Egypt, and smaller numbers have reached Gaza, Turkey and farther afield. Those who have reached Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt face risky legal limbo compounded with living conditions so difficult that many decide to return to the dangers inside Syria.

UNRWA officials discuss in detail why the UN Agency requires US$ 417.4 million immediately to respond adequately to the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees inside Syria, US$ 90.4 million in Lebanon and US$ 14.6 million in Jordan. US$ 2.4 million is required for emergency response outside of the purview of its field offices, including even token cash assistance for Palestinian families from Syria in Gaza. Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency’s General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 36 million.

Winter storm Alexa, the fiercest storm to hit Gaza and the West Bank in over 100 years, is still wreaking havoc and bringing misery to thousands. As of 12/19/13 40,000 people in Gaza have been driven from their homes due to extreme storm flooding. The flooding has been exacerbated by the fuel crisis that has left people without power for up to 21 hours a day, and forced raw sewage to flow through the streets. People’s lives and health are at grave risk. Gaza’s Hamas government said 4,306 in all had been evacuated to schools and other centers used as makeshift shelters in the past four days. Gaza’s 1.8 million people, trying to survive in one of the most densely populated tracts on earth, has also been enduring around 12-hour blackouts daily since the lone power plant was switched off last month due to a fuel shortage. The territory lacks much basic civil infrastructure and lives under an Egyptian-Israeli blockade which curbs imports of fuel, building supplies and basic goods. UNWRA staff reports that the situation is worsening due to severe Israeli restrictions on the camps. Refugees cannot reconnect power lines that have been cut due to the heavy snow and have little access to basic necessities such as running water. The crises are deepening this winter in virtually all of the vulnerable refugee camps. The residents face severe power shortages and some on the West Bank also face systematic attacks by the Israeli army.

Other problems weighing heavily on UNWRA include strikes and threats of strikes by UNWRA employees protesting claimed low wages as well as expressed dismay at the UNRWA’s widely weak humanitarian role in Gaza, which is racked by crises and disasters, most notably, the ongoing blockade and the recent displacement of many citizens as a result of floods. The workers’ union at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza continued protests this week calling for salary increases. One Hamas official accused UNRWA officials of receiving exorbitant salaries without being up to the tasks it was assigned to do, stressing that this presidency must fulfill its commitments or resign. UNWRA officials who this observer spoke with denied this but declined any information about any UNWRA salaries.

UNRWA, like many aid agencies working in Syria, continues to loose staff as their 10th staffer, teacher Suzan Ghazazweh, a popular and accomplished teacher at Abbasyyeh School, Muzeirib, was killed by shrapnel in her home in the afternoon of 12/2/13 when a shell struck her residence in Shamal Al Khatt Quarter in Dera’a.

Enter Professor Alan Derschowitz!

Adding to UNWRA’s myriad problems is the fact that Professor Alan Dershowitz for some reason chose this Winter Solstice to retire after 46 years on the job at the Harvard Law School. Within hours, if he did do it not last night, Alan will depart Harvard’s hallowed halls in order to devote more time to his current central cause and arguably his most challenging case, “saving Israel from itself and from UNWRA!” as he told a Harvard Crimson stringer on background recently.

The past few years Professor Dershowitz would start off the beginning of semester classes apparently wanting to make a strong impression on his new student’s and to get their attention by offering them his essential view of the law. During the first or second class meeting he reportedly often made references to some of the 13 out of 15 major cases he “won” for the likes of Mike Tyson, Patty Hearst, Jim Bakker, Claus von Bulow and O. J. Simpson to name a few.

He would explain to his classes: “All my big cases I won on a legal technicality! Those cases were lost causes. Otherwise, why would these clients come to me? The first thing to remember as you continue your legal studies is to forget what the law says or even what the facts of a case are! American appellate courts will decide the facts and the law of a case based on what the best advocate says they are. That’s why I win!” To one public international law class Professor Derschowitz reportedly sneered, “And you can forget about claims of human rights based on international law and universal standards of morality. You’ll never win s— with that malarkey.”

As he begins preparation for his “legitimization case” on behalf of the last remaining 19th century colonial enterprise, the Zionist theft and continuing illegal occupation of Palestine, Alan, associates claim, will come out swinging against The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East During his teaching career Alan has been a loyal supporter and some claim a main instigator of AIPAC. He has joined the Zionist Lobby’s more than two decades of attacks on, and trying to cut off the funding of, UNWRA. But until now, he has not been ‘lead attorney of record’.

One source who meets with Professor Derschowitz from time to time in Washington, claims that Alan insists that UNWRA is another one of Israel’s growing number of existential threats “because UNWRA keeps the Palestinian refugee issue alive and allows human rights types to keep the issue of wrongful dispossession of their homes and land before the global community and with no end in sight.”

While making regular trips to Israel, Alan doesn’t come around Lebanon or Syria much and frankly this observer has only met the fellow a couple of times. He claims to have a photographic memory and maybe that is why he doesn’t seem to cotton much to this observer. He might remember, and even hold a grudge of some kind from our first meeting more than a quarter century ago when Alan came to see me in my Congressional House Judiciary office in the Rayburn building. I am not sure who referred him, but only an hour earlier, my boss, Congressman John Conyers, Chairman of Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, called to give me a last minute assignment. It was simple enough and I had done it before. Congressman Conyers wanted me to escort a visiting Chief Justice, this time from Egypt’s highest court, to meet across the lawn from Rayburn at the Supreme Court with our CJ, Warren Burger. An easy enough assignment because Burger was always pleasant with a southern style aura of gentility about him. Fifteen minutes before Egypt’s CJ was due to join me, an intense, smallish, fast talking guy shows up and says he is from the Harvard Law School and must join “the Egyptian” during his meeting with Burger. Frankly it did not matter much to me one way of the other but I did call my supervisor, Hayden Gregory for advice and he said basically, “Not a chance! No way!” Only later did I learn Alan had rubbed Hayden the wrong way over proposed ‘ Federal determinate sentencing guidelines” an issue before our committee at the time.

Long story short, Alan would not take no for an answer. When I made it clear he was not invited and could not join the meeting he became angry and stormed off.

He may still remember but it was not personal with me and this is by way of saying that UNWRA had better baton down its hatches because they have more problems coming their way than they realize or are ready for.

Franklin Lamb is a former Democratic National Committee Member representing Oregon.  He volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.org)

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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