It is now more than ten years since the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada. In the decade of suffering that has followed, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been held in the grip of an extended humanitarian crisis caused by successive rounds of violent conflict, longstanding restrictions on movement and the repeated destruction of homes and infrastructure. The impact on the Palestine refugees has been to drive hundreds of thousands of families into poverty; erode their coping mechanisms while limiting their access to essential public services; rob them of rights and human dignity; and expose them to widespread trauma.
The last year has seen some small improvements in conditions in the West Bank and a merciful lessening of the extreme violence faced by Gazans as compared with 2009. The limited improvements in the West Bank are largely the result of an easing of closures between Palestinian communities on the eastern side of the Barrier and the large in-flows of aid to the Palestinian Authority. A small increase in the number of Palestinians able to earn salaries working in the Israeli labour market has also had an impact, but this source of income remains hostage to the vagaries of the conflict and the closure regime. Palestine refugees have benefited less than non-refugees from new sources of employment; unemployment rates among West Bank refugees remain extremely high, resulting in poverty and food insecurity levels that are higher for refugees than for non-refugees. Communities in Area C of the West Bank, between the barrier and the Green Line and in East Jerusalem remain subject to tight restrictions on their freedom of movement and in many cases vulnerable to house demolitions and increasing incidents of violence from Israeli settlers.
In Gaza a large majority of the population is dependent on UNRWA for food aid and other basic services. This is a result of the economic devastation wrought by years of closure, the blockade imposed since June 2007 and the crisis in shelter and infrastructure caused by a series of Israeli incursions, culminating in the Gaza war that ended in January 2009.1 The adjustment to the blockade announced by the Government of Israel on June 20, in the aftermath of the flotilla incident which claimed the lives of nine civilians, has made only a minor improvement in the importation of humanitarian supplies and reconstruction materials to date and has had no overall effect on exports or, consequently, on the ability of Gaza’s economy to recover. The new permit regime covering the import of building materials has proven to be cumbersome and slow-moving and is not able to cope with the urgent recovery needs of Gaza in the aftermath of the destruction of January 2009. It is estimated by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) that 9,275 housing units need to be built, 2,886 housing units need to be completed and tens of thousands of units are required to cover natural growth.2
The evolution in the pattern of the crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) has compelled UNRWA to build on the measures it has introduced over the last two years to better target its relief assistance to the most needy refugee families. In both fields, poverty benchmarking assessments have been introduced to ensure that it is the food insecure and abject poor who benefit from its food aid, cash assistance and job creation programmes. The Agency has also taken steps to ensure its relief assistance better accounts for the specific needs of individual groups, such as female-headed households, herders in the West Bank, youth and children. This targeted, multilevel support will, for instance, see around 200,000 child refugees in Gaza provided with additional food as a form of livelihood support, and with back-to-school assistance. This is part of the Agency’s efforts in to mitigate the negative impact of the crisis on refugees’ access to basic health and sanitation services in both fields, and to provide shelter, including transitional shelter, as well as emergency assistance, to those whose homes are destroyed or damaged by conflict.
The rights to which Palestinian refugees are entitled under international humanitarian law continue to be regularly violated or ignored with impunity. Under its emergency operations during 2011, UNRWA plans to enhance its monitoring, reporting and advocacy activities in respect of refugee rights as well as providing mental health services – at both an individual and community level – to ameliorate the distress caused by violence, closures, loss of dignity and extreme hardship. It will also provide mobile outreach services to those in isolated communities or those exposed to particular insecurity around the Barrier, in Area C and in East Jerusalem. UNRWA is also seeking the funds to allow it to maintain a modicum of additional staff and resources at the field and HQ level required to implement its emergency operations without depleting the quality and reach of its core human development and assistance programmes. The Agency will seek to improve its capacity for the coordination and management of its emergency responses while investing in the programme planning tools and systems that allow it to adapt to the changing nature of the humanitarian crisis.