The first plenary session of the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People, taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, began with a presentation by Maria-Jose Torres-Macho, Deputy Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
During the session, entitled “The socioeconomic and humanitarian situation in Palestine”, Ms. Torres-Macho addressed the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip through indicators, such as livelihoods and economy, housing and shelter, access to services and assistance, education, health, water and sanitation, electricity and physical insecurity.
She said the already dire situation in Gaza had taken a dramatic turn for the worse since the closure of the network of tunnels from Egypt, while the sea blockade had affected between 3,000 and 5,000 people who relied on fisheries, as well as the enclave’s economy as a whole. The restricted area next to the barrier fence coincided with Gaza’s best arable land, where all its greenhouses, as well as citrus and other fruits, were previously located. Gaza’s exports were limited to strawberries sent to the Netherlands as part of a cooperation project with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), she said, noting Israeli claims that other exports could not be allowed for security reasons.
The Gaza situation was characterized by growing constraints in terms of livelihoods and economy, she said. The latest statistics produced by the Palestinian Bureau for Statistics showed that 41 per cent of Gaza’s people were unemployed, with the poverty level at 39 per cent. Some 57 per cent of residents were food insecure, and as a result, 80 per cent of the 1.9 million Gazans were receiving food aid, which was quite striking since the rate of development in the enclave had been quite vibrant before the blockade.
In terms of housing and shelter, there was a shortage of 70,000 housing units due to natural population growth, as well as the damage caused by Israel’s 2009 “Operation Cast Lead”, she said, adding that 12,000 people remained displaced after the destruction of their homes. Overcrowded schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) or the Ministry of Education operated double shifts. Some 250 more schools were to be built to accommodate the growing population.
On health care, she said there was a lack of basic drugs and essential disposables in Gaza, partly due to Palestinian Authority budget shortfalls and allocation priorities between the West Bank and Gaza. Owing to restrictions in April, only seven patients had crossed into Egypt, compared to 7,000 a month in 2013. Only very sick people or special cases were able to enter Egypt.
Concerning electricity, she said there were ongoing power cuts and the Gaza power plant was on the verge of running out of fuel, which would affect the basic operation of clinics and the running of sewage and water systems. That would force the use of reserve generators. Fuel supplies provided by were running out, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was engaged in dialogue with Ramallah on how to provide fuel for critical sectors. As for physical security, there was always collateral damage affecting civilians, even when Israel carried out strikes against alleged military targets.
Turning to the West Bank, she said the territory’s population now stood at 2.7 million, she said the division of land after the Oslo Accords of 1993-1994 had changed the way in which land was administered, and areas of the West Bank had been assigned to various categories — A, B and C. Palestinian movement was limited by the need to get Israel’s approval, and the lifting of such restrictions would significantly improve the West Bank economy — by 30 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) — and access to land, homes and livelihoods was very difficult for Palestinians.
She went on to say that Area E1 near Jerusalem was surrounded by two blocks of settlements, and 200 Bedouin communities there would have to be relocated, according to Israel. The relocation area has been identified and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was currently focusing on that. The way forward was not only about meeting basic needs, but also about protecting fundamental human rights, she emphasized, noting that the global financial crisis had affected the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ funding, reducing its reach in terms of providing assistance.
Robert Turner, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, addressed the Seminar via video link, describing the situation in Gaza as environmentally, economically and politically unsustainable. While the international community faced a multitude of humanitarian crises in various other parts of the world, the man-made Gaza case had been entirely preventable. In seven years since Israel’s imposition of the blockade, Gaza had gone from well-rounded middle-income economy to a situation in which most of the population relied on the United Nations for food.
Gaza faced some very significant environmental challenges in the medium term, he continued, the most serious of which was the availability of drinking water. Less than 10 per cent was safe for drinking, but it was getting worse by the day. That problem could be resolved by desalination, but that required power, he said, describing the power situation as “very dire”. Power was off for 15 to 16 hours a day due to the unavailability of fuel.
He went on to note that Gaza’s economy was in its eighth year under Israel’s blockade. Agriculture, food processing and textile production had been affected because of a shortage of materials and the lack of access to markets. Construction materials had previously come in through the tunnels but after the closure of that operation, unemployment rates had increased. No salaries had been paid to the de facto Government’s 40,000 employees for the last three months, he said, warning that disgruntled former workers were a potential source of instability, while the ongoing governance vacuum threatened to dissolve into chaos.
Mounir Kleibo, Representative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Jerusalem, gave a brief description of current employment challenges in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, saying: “It is not an easy time to be a young man or woman in the Palestinian labour market today.” Unemployment was high, particularly for college-educated women, and thousands were forced to work in Israel or in the settlements. Agricultural productivity had declined, affecting both GDP and unemployment rates. On the situation of Palestinian women in the labour force, he said their participation rate during the first quarter of 2014 had stood at 17.3 per cent, one of the lowest in the region. Those lacking skills held menial positions with compensation that did not meet the minimum wage and no compensation for overtime work, while participation in the labour force by women with university degrees was the lowest in the world.
On youth, he said that 70 per cent of the Palestinian population was under the age of 30, adding that only 49 per cent of young men aged 15 to 24 participated in the labor force compared to 8.8 per cent of young women. The unemployment rate for young men was 36.9 per cent, while that of women was 64.7 per cent. Additionally, the youth labour market in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was profoundly influenced by gender, he said, noting that the local economy could absorb less than 10 per cent of some 40,000 university graduates. The education system did not equip graduates with the necessary skill sets, he added.
He went on to state that Palestinians worked for Israelis under conditions based on a quota and permit system. Working in Israeli settlements was not a choice but a necessity for Palestinian workers. Men worked in construction and the industrial sector, while women did agricultural or domestic work. The latter were particularly exposed to abusive practices by labour brokers, including excessive fees or wage deductions and sexual violence. Workers were also exposed to occupational safety risks, as well as hazardous and humiliating conditions without adequate protection.
Concerning children and persons with disabilities, he said the majority of child labour cases were found in agriculture. Persons with disabilities faced great impediments and obstacles to integration into the labor market. East Jerusalem also faced severe challenges caused by the erection of the separation wall, inadequate public transport services and the enforcement of strenuous checkpoint procedures. Area C, where more than half the land in the West Bank was located, much of it agricultural and resource-rich, was inaccessible to Palestinians. Yet, were economic activity to be liberalized, it would have a particularly high impact on the development of businesses in agriculture, as well as in the exploitation of Dead Sea minerals, stone mining and quarrying, construction, tourism and telecommunications.
Fahd Abu Saymeh, Financial and Administrative Director of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem, examined the economic costs of the occupation, saying it imposed myriad restrictions on the Palestinian economy. It prevented Palestinians from accessing much of their lands and exploiting most of their natural resources; isolated Palestinians from global markets; and fragmented their territory into small, poorly connected “islands”. As recently highlighted by international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the occupation impeded any prospects for sustainable economic growth.
John Clarke, Chief of the Coordination Unit in the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, emphasized that improving the situation on the ground would mean, not only continuing advocacy on movement, access and other enabling measures, but also working to scale up and improve international programming, including the estimated $1 billion implemented annually through the United Nations. Noting that United Nations programming had always provided essential support for Palestinian State-building, he said it had taken on even greater importance following the formation of the Government of National Consensus, which would abide by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) commitments on recognition of Israel, non-violence and adherence to previous agreements. The reconciliation held out the prospect of reuniting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under a single legitimate Palestinian authority. “We have already indicated our support to those efforts, including by addressing the increasing political, security, humanitarian and economic challenges in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “The UN will continue to engage with the newly appointed Government of National Consensus in order to improve conditions for Palestinians while continuing our political work with the parties.”
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