UNRWA needs $60 million in June to buy relief food for one million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, while Trump’s Middle East envoy is agitating for the UN to close the agency. UNRWA’s mandate does not belong to Trump. But it’s time to ask, what will happen on the day after UNRWA’s money runs out?
In 2011-12, poor Gazan households received relief food. Then they spent up to half of their incomes to buy the rest of the food that they needed to survive. That was 2011, before the tunnels were blown up, before the 2014 bombardment all the subsequent punishment. Before all that, the poorest group of Gazans were spending half of their incomes to feed their families, including their relief food. They were already straining every kind of informal mutual assistance.
The failure of UNRWA food relief would not be just another hardship. For the poorest Gazans, food relief is a matter of survival.
On the day that UNRWA becomes unable to place food on half of Gaza’s tables, Israel will not loosen the blockade. States will not recognize Hamas as an interlocutor or funding channel. If Trump can succeed in disabling or dismantling UNRWA, Gaza will lose its primary public service provider, its largest non-military employer and economic actor, its most experienced blockade logistician, and its chief humanitarian actor – and no one will be able to replace it.
I worked in Gaza four years, including two years as a consultant to the office of UNRWA’s Gaza director 2013 – 2015. I don’t idealize UNRWA. Gaza needs political change. However, with no justice in sight, half the population may lose their relief food supply. I ask who will bring it on the day after UNRWA because UNRWA is not like other aid actors, and Gaza is not interchangeable with other places.
If not through UNRWA, how will aid reach Gaza?
Trump’s officials can sing their lullaby about funding host governments to assist refugees, but Gaza has no recognized government. Gazans are perfectly capable of building their own organizations, if they were allowed to do so. They have not been allowed. Within those blockade walls – those walls that are the real, proximate cause of its suffering – prospective Gazan organizations are further stifled. The blockade has given Hamas a free hand to control its territory, while the donors have marketized the global delivery of their hundreds of millions of dollars of aid.
The blockade chokes, Hamas limits, and the donors structure Gaza’s immediate aid alternatives. There might be a few compliant Palestinian Authority entities dispensing aid on the day after UNRWA, and there will be for-profit and NGO contractors preparing to do business as usual.
On the day after UNRWA, public sector services will fail for the two-thirds of Gazans who are registered as refugees: health, education and food. UNRWA is also the largest non-military actor in Gaza’s private sector, most noticeably through its procurement and construction. That makes UNRWA a key source of liquidity. UNRWA’s own payroll, its purchasing and programmes introduce and circulate cash behind the blockade wall.
These actions support an economic order (it can no longer be called a functioning economy). Gaza’s economic order is among the world’s most volatile, with wild swings and unknowns. Like an anchor, UNRWA stabilizes. Women must somehow stretch their food budgets until the next food distribution, when they can put another sack of flour on the shelf. With UNRWA’s food relief programme, they count down to a known date. On the day after UNRWA, even that subsistence-level predictability will choke.
Economic order underpins social order. Gaza’s civility was always a wonder to me, with its insistent focus on family and education. Can it be sustained when half of the family tables lack food?
UNRWA’s vertical integration has required it to develop a broad, holistic knowledge of Gaza’s blockade logistics. The silos of sector-specific aid contracting have the opposite effect: they dis-integrate. In fact, passive acceptance of circumstance is wired into contracting. A contractor is paid to deliver, not to meddle with the politics.
On the day after UNRWA, no one will have its logistics and integration – and UNRWA’s vertical integration is precisely what makes it Gaza’s emergency lifeline. No one else in Gaza has the buildings and the fleets of cars, trucks, rubbish trucks and water tankers; health clinics and warehouses with emergency stocks; the communications and co-ordination, the international procurement lines and the experienced staff who tie it together in every neighbourhood of Gaza.
Gazans do not turn to Hamas for shelter under fire. Hamas’s leadership goes underground. By contrast, through the onslaught of 2014, 5500 of UNRWA’s Gazan staff maintained essential services in the streets, beneath the bombs, protected only by their high-visibility vests (UNRWA has the requisite thousands of vests on its warehouse shelves).
Anti-UNRWA operatives like to say soothingly that experts will parachute into Gaza when they are needed, and they will routinely save lives as they do elsewhere. Gaza is not like anywhere else. Under fire, its people are locked in and their supplies are locked out.
I worked through the 2014 war as part of the team that operated UNRWA’s inundated civilian shelters. I am acutely aware that we were not able to do enough, or protect enough, in the face of Israel’s strategy of massive civilian displacement. Still, no one else can do what UNRWA does in an emergency. On the first day of the first crisis after UNRWA, Gaza will be catastrophically different.
On the day after UNRWA, Gaza will be a humanitarian problem.
UNRWA is mandated (if not adequately funded) to serve the single community of Palestinians, waiting in several places for a political solution. UNRWA stands as a visible reminder of a single, national injustice. The importance of UNRWA’s unifying mandate is amplified by the Palestinian factions’ lack of a national vision.
On the day after UNRWA, hundreds of contractors will begin to compete to deliver bite-sized slices of aid as they do elsewhere. Their duplication of effort will make UNRWA look sleek. Palestinian public services will be anonymized into a thousand generic budget lines. No longer part of one, coherent political demand; Gaza will pose a series of replicable, quantifiable humanitarian delivery problems.
UNRWA’s multi-sectoral operations now centralize refugees’ records. Its inter-generational health records indicate a Palestinian infant’s predisposition to inherited medical conditions. Its schools document a lifetime of educational achievement. A displaced person often loses the continuity of their recorded life. That will begin to happen as UNRWA’s operations fragment.
Much of UNRWA-Gaza’s work takes place within in eight teeming urban refugee camps. A camp is a deeply compromised place that is and isn’t home. Camp residents naturally resist any change that masks their displacement. UNRWA’s enduring neighbourhood-level offices balance the quality of the camps’ built environment, against the risk of normalization.
On the day after UNRWA, contracted providers will be brought in to work without UNRWA’s stubborn mandate, depth or institutional memory.
And that is, of course, the point of the exercise. Trump attacks UNRWA to depoliticize Palestine, normalize the blockade of Gaza and exhaust Gazans into passivity. He flouts international law and humanitarian commitments, without paying a noticeable price for it. American foreign military financing grants now fund 19% of Israel’s defense budget, and 0.00% of UNRWA’s food budget.
Trump may loathe the political import of UNRWA’s mandate, but UNRWA’s operations have additionally become a lifeline to two million people since Israel blockaded Gaza in 2007. Trump may be aiming at a political target, but he is also striking at an essential, purpose-built response to the illegal blockade.
Gaza can be made to go hungry, but Gazans have never agreed to go quietly. The Great March of Return has become their platform. On the day after UNRWA’s funding fails, I cannot imagine the shape it will take.