by Stephen McCloskey, Director, Centre for Global Education

The Trump Administration in the United States has rocked the Middle-East with two devastating policy announcements in recent months that have created fear and instability for the five million Palestinians living in the region.

In December, President Trump announced a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby reversing a longstanding US commitment to have the status of the contested Holy City agreed as part of a negotiated Middle-East settlement. By recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Trump seemingly dashed Palestinian aspirations for recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Trump regarded this move as ‘a long overdue step to advance the peace process’, but this view was overwhelmingly rejected by the United Nations General Assembly when it voted 128-9 in favour of a resolution condemning Washington’s policy shift. The size of the majority opposing the US was all the more commendable for the bullying that preceded the vote which included a threat from US diplomat Nikki Haley that she would be
‘taking names’ of countries that supported the motion with a view to cutting their aid from the US.

UNRWA budget cuts

More evidence of Trump’s political chauvinism in the Middle-East came in January with his administration’s announcement that it was to withhold $65m (£45.8) of a $125m aid package to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN Mission created in 1948 to provide for the welfare of Palestinian refugees. In one of his legendary bad-tempered tweets, President Trump said ‘we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect’. Indeed, in 2017 the US contributed $355m to UNRWA, around half of its operating budget but contrast this with US aid to Israel which was $3.1 billion in 2017 – more than any other nation – in the context of an overall 28 per cent ($50 billion) cut to the US aid budget last year. Trump’s announcement is highly dangerous given the parlous humanitarian conditions in which Palestinians are living, particularly in the Gaza Strip, with the International Committee of the Red Cross warning that ‘without immediate intervention, a public health and environment crisis is looming’.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNWRA, has asked ‘Is it in American and Israel security interests to have the collapse of a functioning service provider in Jerusalem?’. UNRWA services in Gaza go beyond food aid to include the provision of 267 schools, 21 primary healthcare facilities, 48 women’s programme centres and 33 community rehabilitation centres. There are also just under 100,000 recipients of ‘social safety net’ services directed at families living in ‘abject poverty’ who are ‘unable to meet their most basic food needs’. If these frontline services are removed, it will not only create unbearable levels of distress to Palestinians who have already suffered the effects of eleven years of an Israeli blockade, but create social upheaval and fertile ground for the spread of extremism in a region already combatting the hateful ideology of Islamic State.

War and siege on Gaza

Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has been compounded by three Israeli military operations between 2008 and 2014 which claimed the lives of 3,745 Palestinians and wounded 17,441. The infrastructural damage caused by 6,000 airstrikes during the 51-day Operation ‘Protective Edge’ in Gaza in 2014 included: 18,000 housing units completely or partially destroyed, 73 medical facilities damaged, and ‘much of the electricity network and the water and sanitation infrastructure were incapacitated’ (UN General Assembly, 2015: 7). 551 children were killed during ‘Protective Edge’ and 3,000 others injured. A lingering effect of the conflict has been the high number of children requiring psycho-social support ‘because of the trauma and losses experienced during the violence, including physical injury, fear of bombing sounds and death of family members or friends’. Children are in every sense on the frontline of Israel’s blockade and military operations in Gaza. UNRWA has 262,000 students enrolled in 267 schools which means that 90 per cent of schools have to double shift with two different cohorts using the same building every day. Class sizes can be as high as 45 and with an average school day lasting just four hours, students struggle to achieve effective learning.

With an unemployment rate of 43.2 per cent, domestic life in Gaza is characterised for the majority by food and money shortages with the strain of this ‘pressure cooker’ environment most acutely borne by children. Gaza’s power plant operates at only 45 per cent of its capacity because of chronic fuel shortages which means extended periods of blackout of 12-16 hours a day. These social crises are the result of Gaza’s choked off economy starved of trade and investment by Israel’s eleven-year blockade which is illegal under international law. As the occupying power in Gaza, Israel is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention which deems it to ‘be responsible for the security and welfare of the citizens living in the territories it continues to occupy’. Amnesty International’s Magdalena Mughrabi has said that the ‘Israeli authorities must immediately lift the illegal blockade and end their collective punishment of Gaza’s population’, adding that ‘the international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the devastating suffering caused by Israel’s cruel and inhuman isolation of Gaza’.

NIPSA’s support of Gaza’s children

Given the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, particularly for children, and the worrying cut to UNRWA’s budget by the Trump administration, NIPSA’s support of a new three-year Centre for Global Education project in Gaza could not come at a better time. The Centre will be working with our partner in Gaza, the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy, to provide education and psychosocial support services to 400 children aged 7-10. The project will deliver educational activities that provide: a safe and secure space to play; enhanced learning opportunities that will strengthen school performance; psycho-social support that will help address the effects of trauma; and parental workshops that will enable families to extend psychosocial care into the household. The project will also strengthen the capacity of four community organisations in the Gaza Strip to deliver education activities to young people through the provision of training to their staff. It is a capacity-building programme that will benefit the children, their families and the community centres in which the activities will be delivered and, because we have secured three years’ funding, the programme will have an enduring legacy and impact on all of the stakeholders.

The Centre for Global Education deeply appreciates the support for this initiative provided by NIPSA and encourages NIPSA members to answer the call from Palestinian civil society to support the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Movement. BDS is a non-violent movement for ‘freedom, justice and equality’ which ‘works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law’. Supported by academics, trade unions, churches and grassroots movements across the world, BDS is building global support for peace and justice in Palestine. In recognising parallels between apartheid South Africa and the unjust treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has joined the call for support of BDS suggesting that:

“Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of normalcy in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo”.

We need to add our voices to those supporting BDS and take action toward a sustainable and just peace in the Middle-East. For more information please visit the BDS Movement website.