(published in the New Zealand International Journal, December 2019)
I lived and worked in the Gaza Strip 2011 – 2015, as the economic director of Mercy Corps and then as a business and livelihoods consultant to the office of UNRWA’s Gaza Director. Four years is plenty of time to reflect on the reality of our aid to an occupied community of two million people, languishing behind a military blockade for 13 years and counting.
This article will forego the underlying questions and national narratives which are beyond our control. I will instead write from experience about the effect of donor states’ actions upon the lives being lived behind the blockade walls today. I will argue that New Zealand’s few tangible actions conflict with our stated position and our legal obligations.
I will first set out the legal foundations of New Zealand’s – and Israel’s – obligations to Gazan Palestinians while they live under occupation. Because it is central and so much maligned, I will also examine UNRWA’s peculiar role and importance. Then I will discuss the aid anomaly of Gaza, and situate New Zealand’s actions within that context.
Finally, I will propose several immediate, affordable, achievable actions that would be more constructive and better aligned with our national character.
Note that ‘Gazans’ are ‘Palestinians’ who live in the Gaza Strip. The law applies to all Palestinians, although my specifics will narrow to ‘Gazans’.
The UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, International Court of Justice, International Committees of the Red Cross, human rights and legal NGOs agree that the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are occupied Palestinian territories, where International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the laws of occupation apply in full. S Michael Lynk is the UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 (hereafter the Special Rapporteur), and an associate professor of law. As the occupying power, he writes, “among Israel’s most important legal duties is to respect and preserve the fundamental rights of the protected population under international law.”
Israel disagrees, but the relevant international institutions overwhelmingly reject language or arguments that render Palestine as a zone of exception, beyond the application of law. Each time New Zealand votes in support of UN resolutions which condemn violations of international law, we affirm that we view the occupation of Palestine as an act bound by law.
While occupation is a legal, temporary status, the Special Rapporteur’s previous reporting assessed that the occupation of Palestine “has become illegal, given its flagrant violations of the foundational principles of the modern laws of occupation.” His current report details the legal sources of states’ obligations to act. States must not recognize or assist any situation which was achieved outside of the law, and they bear a positive duty to act in order to end breaches of the law.
I write on this basis. The occupied people of Palestine are protected by law, and our government bears a legal duty to act on that knowledge, in addition to our humanitarian concern for their suffering.
States assist Palestinian refugees primarily through UNRWA, the UN’s single-issue agency for Palestine refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA is the UN’s largest and eldest agency, and it is the only UN agency which directly provides services. While other agencies contract out their service delivery, UNRWA builds and staffs its own schools and clinics, fleets of rubbish trucks and food distribution centers. UNRWA’s largest staff group consists of 22,000 educational staff, teaching 526,000 students.
The UN General Assembly established UNRWA in 1949. Its mandate, renewed by vote every three years, directs UNRWA to protect and assist one national community, whose members have been displaced to several locations. UNRWA’s mandate makes it an enduring, bureaucratic proof of the occupation and dispossession of Palestinians. UNRWA’s consolidated funding appeals make Palestine refugees visible as one national group. That coherence would be lost if refugees’ needs were subsumed into hundreds or thousands of NGO and for-profit companies’ budget lines. In the streets and alleys of its 59 refugee camps, UNRWA’s logo is equally the visible symbol of one coherent global obligation.
Think of UNRWA as a 360-degree target of opportunity, as everyone enacts some of their occupation policy through it. Each time they renew UNRWA’s mandate, the majority of the world’s states is refusing to normalize the occupation. Conversely, a few states try to eliminate UNRWA, in order to hide the evidence of occupation. Western states urge the Arab states to fund UNRWA as a gesture of regional solidarity, while Arab states require the West to regard UNRWA as one cost of winking at the occupation. Supporters of Israel complain that UNRWA relieves Hamas of its quasi-governmental burdens in Gaza, while supporters of Palestine allege as vociferously that UNRWA relieves Israel of the burdens of an occupying power.
Gazan Palestinians protest bitterly at the gates of UNRWA compounds – and where else should they protest donor actions and inaction? They live in deteriorating, thoroughly unacceptable conditions. UNRWA is the accessible face of the blockade regime and the donors’ role within it. Since March 30, 2018, Gazans have also protested weekly, in their thousands, at the fences which Israel built to confine them. Increasingly they protest against the rule of Hamas, although both of those protests lie beyond the scope of this article.
These are exceptionally difficult months for UNRWA.
President Trump abruptly abandoned American commitments to the Palestinian people, including more than $300 million US of UNRWA funding. UNRWA is staggering from the loss of roughly one-third of its total contributions. Trump wishes to deny the refugee status of Palestinians born after the actual displacement or Nakba (catastrophe), but Washington does not define their status. The UN website clearly explains that both of its refugee agencies, UNRWA and UNHCR, recognize intergenerational refugees where unresolved conflicts have created intergenerational displacement. Palestinians, Somalis and Afghans all register with their agencies as the descendants of refugees.
Several of UNRWA’s top officials are being investigated for abusing their authority. The allegations are personal rather than systemic, and two of the individuals have already left the agency. If the allegations are found to be true, the UN Secretary General will surely take appropriate action. The importance of UNRWA lies in its mandate and its work, not in a few individuals.
UNRWA is also subject to more thoughtful class, political and technical critiques, as its mandate and operations age. UNRWA has the invidious role of grafting a little global welfare onto the occupation’s gravest suffering. Its core problem is that a humanitarian institution – a temporary placeholder – cannot stand in for a political solution and was not designed to become a way of life. Humanitarian aid is far, far better than nothing but far, far less than a solution. New Zealand and other donors are neither acting on the problem, nor funding the real human consequences of neglecting that problem.
Gaza lives at the sharp end of all these facts. In 1948, 60 – 80,000 Gazans opened their doors to refugees. The Gaza Strip, which is the length of a marathon, now houses two million people. A refugee camp is a deeply unsatisfactory place, and the fourth generation of Gazan Palestinians is growing up in that limbo.
I worked as an UNRWA consultant for 28 months in Gaza, where the agency anchors one of the world’s most vulnerable communities and most volatile economies. UNRWA provides public sector services to two-thirds of Gaza’s population. While I was there, UNRWA’s economic activity constituted 16% of Gaza’s GDP. It is Gaza’s largest non-military employer, and its transactions are a critical source of liquidity. UNRWA’s instability reverberates systemically through Gaza – especially threatening the food on its tables.
A 2011 – 2012 food security study found that after poor Gazan households received UNRWA’s relief food, they were still spending up to half of their income to meet their remaining food requirements. That is the extent of their need. Before the blockade, UNRWA fed 80,000 poor Gazans. Today one million people depend on UNRWA’s food distribution programme, and UNRWA’s budgets are teetering. That is what it means to send passive relief aid to a trapped community for seventy years: relief food preserves life, but does nothing to loosen the trap.
I also witnessed the lifesaving importance of UNRWA’s vertical integration, when I volunteered to work in Gaza through the bombardment of 2014. UNRWA’s emergency response team consisted mainly of 5500 Gazans. They stayed at their posts through the war, distributed food and water, operated 90 emergency shelters and a network of health clinics, removed rubbish, received supplies from the blockade’s one entry point, and drove through the streets under fire in order to warehouse and distribute the supplies. UNRWA designated ninety of its flagged buildings – already marked on military co-ordination maps – as emergency shelters. Of the half-million Gazans who were displaced during fifty days of bombardment, 293,000 came to UNRWA’s neighbourhood school buildings for shelter.
In these and other ways, UNRWA is essential rather than ideal. Only a madman would pretend that its infrastructure and experience can be routinely replaced behind a blockade. The defunding or loss of UNRWA would impose profound consequences on the most vulnerable people in the occupied territories – Gaza and Syria in particular. When Trump or anyone else fires broadsides at UNRWA, these are the people they are willing to hit.
I lived behind the Gaza blockade for four years. A blockaded community is such an anomaly in our entropic world that our minds look back to the medieval sieges of total war. That’s misleading. The blockade of Gaza is a very modern, high-tech strategy of endless conflict maintenance.
The irony of Gaza’s hardship is particularly bitter because, as a community, Gaza has so much of what it needs to thrive. It has assets that other conflict-affected communities might take generations to replicate, like trust and mutual assistance, an entrepreneurial and scientific mindset, and an abiding love of education.
I remember visiting a kindergarten, in a shelter for families whose homes had been bombed in 2014. Someone had made kid-sized furnishings by hand from salvaged materials, and each child wore a bright construction-paper crown. The shelter manager, herself homeless, said firmly, “Our children must love learning. We may be displaced but our education comes with us.” For their kindergarten graduation, each of those children wore a sewn gown and mortarboard.
Gaza maintains one of the world’s highest rates of literacy, but its university graduates enter a labour market with one of the world’s highest rates of unemployment. When I worked for UNRWA, the waiting list for three-month temporary work assignments held 180,000 names.
I have never seen more avoidable waste of minds and skills. Because fully qualified engineers are not permitted to import replacement parts for the sewage treatment system, they must discharge untreated sewage into the Mediterranean sea. Because they may not import technology to manage its solid waste, the Gaza Strip holds three of the world’s fifty largest active rubbish tips. And so on.
The common donor wisdom sighs that nothing will work behind the Gaza blockade. From what I saw, very little has been tried. Donors have acquiesced in calling Gaza a humanitarian problem, and making soul-destroying aid choices fit for a brief moment of emergency. Gazans keep trying to work, and donors keep sending them food and telling them to wait.
Gaza is not a humanitarian problem. Gaza is a political problem, which has been allowed to fester so long that it now manifests in a humanitarian, economic and ecological calamity.
In the West Bank, aid rewards elites and holds the present Palestinian leadership in place – even as states bemoan the supposed lack of alternatives. It is often noted that that Western states condemn the Arab world for its authoritarianism, while supporting the authoritarians. Western aid to Palestine has also been a tool of the status quo.
Inevitably, all this stokes incendiary politics: no one is made safe by the immiseration of Gaza. At times of internal unrest, Hamas is susceptible to challenge from more-radical factions, not less. And internal unrest has been growing as the tacit humanitarian agreement – flour and stagnation, survival without change, energy with no outlet – is jeopardized by insufficient budgets for the aid itself. People are restive because human beings are not wired to accept the terms of survival that the blockade regime imposes upon Gazan Palestinians.
Where does New Zealand fit?
New Zealand regularly supports UN resolutions that affirm the applicability of the laws of occupation and IHL in Palestine. We support the establishment of two states for two peoples in Israel-Palestine. We do not recognize one of the parties to that vision, the State of Palestine. Palestine is recognized by 138 states, or 71% of the UN member states.
We do business normally with Israel and welcome Israeli visitors, while Palestinians face a different quality of scrutiny if they seek visitors’ visas. New Zealand recently acknowledged an anti-Middle Eastern bias in our ‘family link’ refugee program. Perhaps the assumptions behind our Palestinian visa policy should also be scrutinized: if we have problematized a Middle Eastern identity before, are we problematizing Palestinian nationality again?
New Zealand contributes roughly $1 million per year of unearmarked funds to UNRWA, with forward commitments through 2022.
We are also directly participating in the war economy by purchasing $9 million of Israeli military robotics. Israel’s sale of the occupation’s technologies of surveillance, containment, paramilitary policing and combat made it the eighth-largest exporter of weapons on earth in the period 2014 – 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Israel’s arms sales had increased 60% over the previous study period.
Media reports promote the successful test of Israel’s ‘first combat robot,’ and its intended deployment in Gaza. Readers are invited to click on a link and ‘watch the [Israel Defence Force] take it for a test run.’
Anyone who has ever chosen not to purchase goods tested on caged animals, must surely be incensed by the purchase of machines that were designed for use on a confined human community. We contribute $1 to keep Palestinians alive behind a wall, and we spend $9 on the military force that confines them.
If NZ proceeds along its three current tracks – affirming the applicability of law, caring for the protected community while investing more heavily in the weapons of occupation – we will have become part of a global cognitive disconnect. As the Special Rapporteur writes, ‘No occupation in the modern world has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law… so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected population under occupation, and yet so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence.’
The ratio of our expenditures suggests that we have come to view Palestinians as objects of security policy rather than as a nation of equal, rights-bearing human beings. How might our choices change, if we acted upon our statements that the occupation of Palestine is a matter of law and justice? Even knowing that our actions do not address fundamental causes or solutions, what could we do, affordably, achievably, constructively, now?
We could eschew business as usual in a setting that is anything but usual, and we could reward steps toward the vision we espouse.
President Trump has de-funded cross-border and cross-cultural projects. These aim to keep the possibility of co-existence alive for children and youth. Behind the walls of Gaza are many positive initiatives for employment, expression or environmental sustainability. Our small aid budgets could make a real difference to these activities.
In a world full of robots, there is flatly no need for us to buy machines that are tested upon, and designed to be used against, a protected human community under occupation. We could purchase ethically.
Having scrapped the biased ‘family link’ refugee program, we could re-examine the assumptions underlying our treatment of Palestinian people, including their visa status.
Repeated news stories hint at further partnerships with Israel’s IT sector, a sector deeply implicated in the military. IT is also a significant industry in the West Bank, and it is vital to Gaza because technology jumps over the blockade walls. Palestinian women have flocked to IT’s merit-based employment opportunities. We could limit our partnerships to initiatives that advance the peaceful, unifying uses of technology.
Finally, although we cannot make justice from here, we really could be speaking to it. Among the most insidious messages in Israel-Palestine is the claim that two peoples will never live peacefully together. That claim forecloses on justice and peace.
New Zealand has an unfinished national project of decolonization. We see the difficulty and the vitality of such projects. We know that negotiated agreements are essential, and we know that they mean little without the hard work of re-imagining our assumptions and our structures of power.
We ought to be speaking and acting from that knowledge. Instead, our present actions align with power and pay lip service to justice.
Published in the NZ International Review, December 2019
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory since 1967, March 15, 2019, p. 9. A/HRC/40/73
 Justice For Some, by Noura Erekat (Stanford University Press 2019) details the history and cumulative effect of exceptional language in Israel-Palestine.
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory since 1967, October 21, 2019, A/74/48057 available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/newyork/Pages/GA74thSession.aspx para 58
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory since 1967, October 21, 2019, A/74/48057 available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/newyork/Pages/GA74thSession.aspx para 77