How does closing schools for 500,000 children help anti-radicalisation?

Chris Gunness from the UNRWA, the United Nations organisation that looks after Palestinian refugees, gave this briefing in London recently on the effect of Trump’s cuts in UNRWA funding

Our biggest single state donor is the US. Last year we received $365 million and we had
CHRIS-GUNNESSbeen led to believe by the American administration that we would get exactly that amount this year. In the second week of January we got a cheque for 60 million and we were quite surprised. When we made repeated enquiries to our interlocutors in Washington it became clear that that is all we could expect for this year. So our budget which is $1.2 billion was suddenly reduced by at least $300 million.

Now let me talk about the potential impact of that. 525 thousand students in UNWRA schools in the Arab states and territories around Israel may not get an education. Nine million patient visits which is what our 140 primary health clinics give to Palestine refugees every year may stop functioning. 1.7 million food-insecure Palestine refugees may not receive food. That is in places like Syria where we have 400,000 at least Palestine refugees wholly dependent on UNWRA for food. In Gaza alone there are one million food-insecure refugees and by the way as a matter of political choice, that figure has gone from about 80,000 people in the year 2000, to nearly one million today,  so as a matter of political choice the international community has taken the decision to make one million people food insecure in an economy where there is over 60 per cent unemployment.

We hear a lot about radicalisation: one hears it from western politicians, one hears it from American politicians, one hears it from British politicians and European politicians. Can I ask rhetorically of them but also of you, how can it be in the interests of the anti-radicalisation narrative, to have over half a million children on the streets of the Middle East, at a time when extremist groups are in full recruitment mode?

How can it be in the interests of an anti-radicalisation narrative to have a million hungry, angry, increasingly ill-educated children in UNWRA schools become non- functioning. How can that be in anyone’s interest?

And on the subject of radicalisation allow me to make a slightly more profound thought: whatis Gaza? It is essentially a closed Palestinian community where there are appalling human rights abuses that take place on a daily basis, where political horizons and where personal horizons are deprived of a people who are naturally entrepreneurial and who want nothing more than to be free from the indignity of aid dependence. What is Yarmouk? Yarmouk is a refugee camp on the southern reaches of Damascus which was taken over by Isis in 2014. It is an enclosed Palestinian community with a ring of steel around it where there is an enormous and appalling denial of human rights on an industrial scale where there are no political or personal horizons, What is  Ein El Hilweh in Lebanon? It is an  enclosed Palestinian society where there are appalling human rights abuses where people have no political or personal horizons. What is Al Walaja in the West Bank? The list goes on.

And the point I am trying to make is that what defines Palestinian identity  increasingly is this experience of confinement, of rights abuses, of the deprivation of personal and political horizons and that is why I wholeheartedly agree with what our ambassador has said that there has to be a political solution. That alone will solve UNWRA’s economic crisis and that indeed will solve the political crisis confronting the scattered communities around the Middle East.

I want to end by telling you a story and I think it speaks to the anti-radicalisation argument. When after the 2014 war our schools gathered together at the beginning of the academic year the first thing that happened is that there was a roll call. There was a roll call because our school kids had to learn who had been killed in the war. They had to learn which of their classmates had been so badly maimed they could not get to school. Now imagine your children going to school and starting the academic year and having to begin by trying to get their heads around their classmates who had been killed. UNWRA’s work in that situation was to employ  a socio-economic adviser/practitioner in each of our schools and they worked tirelessly to work through the traumas. Our doctors, last time I was in Gaza in November, said to me: There is an epidemic of psycho-social problems. There are tens of thousands of children in Gaza who simply have no sense of a future, who are deeply disturbed by three wars within the last nine years. I say to you thank you. Behind all these macro-economic statistics there are individuals whose dignity and individuality must be respected. So thank you for supporting us.

 

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