Gazans barely survive under Israeli siege: UNRWA chief
Andrew Whitley, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine
Press TV: We are talking today about the status of refugees in Gaza. Thank you for joining me today. Recently, at a Brookings event, Congressman Keith Ellison – our first Muslim elected to Congress – was comparing a visit he had to Gaza, about a year ago, to coming back to Gaza now… he says he wishes the status of Gaza had remained the same. But he says that, unfortunately, things have deteriorated; Schools have not been rebuilt, there are not enough jobs to go around and people in Gaza are on the brink of starvation. Do you agree with his assessment that things have deteriorated that dramatically in the past year?
Andrew Andrew Whitley:Congressman Ellison is a wonderful advocate. He is a great speaker for the Muslim world, and a great advocate in the Congress for downtrodden people, particularly in Gaza, which he has really made his personal cause. I don’t say that it’s been a dramatic decline. Certainly, there has been a decline. Living standards continue to deteriorate. Nothing is static in this world after all, and, as the siege has not been lifted to any appreciable degree, you are still getting into Gaza perhaps 20 percent of the volume of goods that are required for daily subsistence of people. People are effectively living on a subsistence diet. The kind of food and other products that we can bring in provide the barest essentials for life. People have got their noses just above the waterline. But, in the meantime, what has happened is that those few small remaining businesses, which had provided some local employment, have virtually all collapsed, because there is no money in circulation. Poverty is deepening in Gaza every day. So, today we probably have 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line. People have survived until now through the tunnel economy, which certainly was bringing in some illicit goods – drugs, weapons. We know about that. But, most if it, it was a lifeline for people providing normal goods. It was a means of being able to keep some commerce going and being able to provide consumers with a few essentials certainly needed for ordinary life which were not coming through the largely closed Israeli crossings from Israel into the Gaza Strip. So, there is the problem of the tunnel economy which is being threatened now as a result of the construction of the wall that Egypt is putting on its side of the border…
Press TV: This is a 20-mile (32-km) steel wall…
Andrew Whitley: It is a huge wall. We don’t know the whole plans, but it is obviously a massive enterprise which is designed to interdict the tunnels that have been running. Perhaps several hundreds of them throughout the entire area, that have provided the basis for the economy. But, everything else has come virtually to a halt. Apart from the tunnel economy, you’ve got UNRWA which supports about 17,000 people directly. Over 100,000 people indirectly who are being supported by them. Plus the Palestinian Authority, which is paying for people to largely sit at home and not do their jobs, and then Hamas of course, which has had its own sources of money, which has been able to keep it. That is it; That is what people are living off. All the traditional ways that people used to live – on agriculture, on fishing – those all virtually have collapsed.
Press TV: So, are the agriculture and fishing industry damaged beyond repair? I mean, is this just gone?
Andrew Whitley: I wouldn’t say that it is damaged beyond repair. But, obviously the pollution that has been going into Gaza has severely damaged the water quality in the area and is damaging the fishing fleet. The main restrictions on fishing at the moment are those imposed by the Israelis, because they prevent the boats going out to sea in order to be able to catch the more lucrative fish which are a little bit further off shore. As far as agriculture is concerned; that is a long-term trend. Most of Gaza’s traditional agricultural lands have been built over. A lot of it has been destroyed in the repeated Israeli incursions that have been coming in as bulldozed ……….. the traditional date palms or orange groves or other normal crops that they had in the area. It is not completely destroyed, but just recently Hamas took a decision to ban farming in certain areas of Gaza, because they said that the land had been contaminated as a result of the toxic metals that were left behind after Israel’s operation a year ago. So, that was a further blow to people wanting to have a little bit of agriculture. People are just about surviving in Gaza today. Through ways that they hardly know how they are going to manage.
Press TV: So, they are hungry every day. Are the kids going to school?
Andrew Whitley: The kids are falling asleep in school, because they are not able to eat enough. They are not concentrating. There is serious and growing problem of malnutrition in Gaza, and that is going to have a long-term effect. We are already seeing the stunting of children. This is something that happens only after a few years of malnutrition. So, we are affecting a whole generation, which not only has no prospects in life, but is going to grow up weak and hungry and anemic and, unfortunately, ill equipped to be able to deal with normal life, if and when it returns.
Press TV: You mentioned that wall that is being constructed. Why is this wall being constructed and is it in compliance with international agreements?
Andrew Whitley: Well, one of the reasons that the wall is being constructed, and it is a perfectly legitimate one, is in compliance with resolution 1860 from the Security Council, which called for an end to arms smuggling into Gaza. One of the main routes – probably the main route – was through these underground tunnels that were coming through. And, the consequence of that is that it is going to further deepen the hardships, the deprivation, that the ordinary people are facing, if there is no comparable opening up of the crossings on the Israeli side. Because, clearly, there is no other way in which the population is going to survive. People have to remember that Gaza depends for 80-90 percent of its normal subsistence on imports and on exports. Most of that in the past used to come through Israel. Israel has closed that door, and attempted to throw away the key, allowing in only a very small quantity of goods, most of which comes in through the United Nations and most of which my agency is responsible for distributing.
Press TV: So, Israel stopped UNRWA from providing medicine, food and goods to the refugees?
Andrew Whitley: No, I would not go that far. We now have a fairly established régime with the Israelis, after some difficulties for some months, where, for month after month, we were not able to bring cash in for example. We couldn’t even pay our own staff. Which I thought was particularly unfair. When people do a month’s work, they are entitled to their wages which they depend on to support their families and their extended relatives who depend on them for income. Now that has eased, and we do at least have enough money to be able to pay our staff and to meet some of our social welfare obligations to people who have no means of support for themselves, who are registered refugees, who are unemployed and who are completely without any means of sustenance for themselves. And we are able to bring in most of the basic goods that we want, but there are many things in addition to the food commodities and medicines that we need. Spare parts for machines, for example. Light bulbs for our classrooms. Other essentials of life, which we have to negotiate on a case-by-case basis, sometimes for months, to be able to say, “are these things on a prohibited list or not?”. We assume that they are not dual-use items. They are the kinds of things which are the normal consumer goods. They are not going to have any negative consequences, if you bring in a truck-load of paper for textbooks for example, and yet we were not able after the war to print the right number of textbooks, because we did not have enough paper locally to be able to do it. So, three kids at a desk were sharing one book. That is no way for getting an education going.
Press TV: So, about 6 months ago, if this is the right timeframe, you were having difficulty getting medicine and food in, because of some restrictions from Israel, but things have lessened. Is it because of negotiations that UNRWA has been making with Israeli officials?
Andrew Whitley: Absolutely, and we do have at least a cooperative, cordial, working-level relationship to be able to explain what the basic essential goods are that we need to be able to bring in to the area. I mean, this is within a highly restricted environment. Let me not go too far and to suggest that somehow we approve of the overall restrictions, or the blockade. Absolutely not. But we do need, as we are dependent entirely on the cooperation of Israel, to bring these goods in to be able to negotiate with them to explain exactly what the purpose of the goods are. What we would like to have done, which we have not succeeded at all, is doing any reconstruction. We have got hundreds and hundreds of buildings of refugee shelters, our own schools, our own warehouse in Gaza which was destroyed exactly a year ago, and all the contents of it, which we are not able to rebuild, because we don’t have the structural steel, we don’t have the cement, we don’t have the building aggregate. So, important re-housing projects to at least give a normal life to people who have been living in truly miserable conditions for a long time, we weren’t able to finish off. We provided guarantees to Israelis that there was going to be no diversion of supplies; that the goods were going to go directly to where we wanted. We’d supervise them. We do direct implementation. It is not as if we are subcontracting to someone else. It is our engineers who oversee those sites. We import directly the goods ourselves, so that they are not going to get misused for concrete bunkers, by Hamas for example, for which is one of the arguments Israel makes. And, besides, if Hamas wants to build concrete bunkers, it can import the cement through the tunnels. So, they don’t need us to use it; that is a pretext. So, unfortunately, on many of the big things that we have wanted from Israel, we have not got it. We have got bare essentials.
Press TV: How is this going to affect the conditions in Gaza, long term?
Andrew Whitley: I don’t believe this is a permanent situation. I believe that Hamas is exerting its authority by showing a determination to say “we are here to stay. You can’t wish us away. You have to deal with us”. And, that is the message that is being sent to Fatah and to the outside world, saying “we need to be taken into account and we are a part of the eventual solution for the Palestinian issue”. Clearly, it is our view. It is a strong UN-held principle that there needs to be Palestinian reconciliation. There needs to be a unified Palestinian leadership, in order to be able to re-unify Gaza and the West Bank, which are increasingly drifting apart, in order to be able to ensure that the Palestinian national project of ending the occupation and building a state can finally be achieved. It will not happen, in our view, if Gaza remains under Hamas control and simply build up the West Bank under the PA (Palestinian Authority) control. Because, how is the PA going to be able to deliver on the people of Gaza when it has no presence there?
Press TV: We haven’t talked about the United States yet and, recently, at a panel discussion at Brookings – and you were on the panel – one of the experts was talking about how the Gazans expect the United States to step in, rebuild their homes, repair their sewage system. What is the United States doing?
Andrew Whitley: There is a touching faith in the power of the United States. There is a great belief, I think, that President Obama’s speech in Cairo inspired a large number of people to believe that there were going to be different policies. I think that people are willing to give [US special envoy to the Middle East] Senator Mitchell credit for the seriousness and determination with which he has approached his task. Obviously, they have not seen much by way of concrete results yet, but then perhaps they were expecting too much too soon. But they do recognize that the keys are in the United States’s hands, and that they expect that the Israeli government will listen to what Washington has to say. Obviously, that is not always exactly the case. The Israeli government has got its own views. It’s got its own perspective on what are its priorities and its policies. Prime Minister Netanyahu has at least committed himself to a two-state solution and to entering into negotiations. Those must happen. It remains everyone’s goal to eventually bring about the end of the occupation and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. How do we get there, given these deep divisions which are being played upon by outside forces also, and that is a factor. The United States is by far the most important actor in this process, but there are a number of others, in the region and further afield, who have been playing a role – some of them constructively, some of them not so constructively.
Press TV: President Bush was criticized because he wasn’t involved enough in the Palestine-Israeli conflict and, as you said, President Obama did give an inspiring speech in Cairo. But that was about a year ago. Do you really see any progress since then? Because there are some Middle Eastern experts out there who say that the United States really hasn’t done enough.
Andrew Whitley: To be a UN official and to be a diplomat, you have to be a professional optimist. You have to – despite what looks like a temporary bleak or negative picture – try and look a little bit beyond that and you have to try to assume that hose who are involved in it – because they are serious people who do recognize the centrality of being able to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute, and specifically the Palestinian aspect of it, how central this is to the wider issue of the Muslim world. And, therefore, I give credit to President Obama and to Senator Mitchell for being determined to try to bring about a solution within a determined period of time. I think this point is very important, which is that this is not just about process, about an open-ended process that would drag on and drag on. Senator Mitchell has made clear in recent days, and I think we should take comfort from this, that he sees this as a two-year timeframe. In other words, he is saying to those people who might like to say, as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to say, that we’d just kick the negotiations into the long grass and we’ll be able to just play out the flock. No, I think what they are saying is, “we are serious, gentlemen. We want a two-year timeframe and we believe you must do it within this period”. Setting a deadline, saying that you must move towards it, under certain preconditions that have to be met. Obviously, on the Palestinian side, the issue of the settlements in the West Bank is a very serious one, because those continue to expand and I think that the US administration was right to be able to make this an important issue. They didn’t get the results that they were hoping to, in terms of the commitment to be able to halt it and president Abbas is standing firm and insisting on this… What Senator Mitchell is clearly aiming at is to be able to, by hook or by crook, by some means, to be able to get the negotiations started again. To change the dynamics of where we are at the moment, where is one where there is an increasing pessimism and fatalism about where we are going.
Press TV: The question that is actually burning inside of me right now is that, do the refugees have two years?
Andrew Whitley: I must say that the capacity of Palestinians, their resilience, in the face of great and deep adversity, always makes me full of admiration. They are living in very difficult circumstances, in Gaza in particular. Yes, things are getting better generally on the West Bank. But, let’s not forget that there are approximately 600 checkpoints in the West Bank, which are restricting normal movement, normal commerce to be able to live free lives of free movement. Do they have two years? Yes, I think that they probably do. They have been enduring already over forty years of occupation since the 1967 war. We are talking about forty-three years now, and they probably could hang for a little bit more. But, people in Gaza are not just dependant on food. They need hope. They need concrete signs of things getting better for them. Young people in particular need to be offered something tangible, which is more than the very nihilistic environment they are living in these days. They need to be given some reason to think that their lives and their families’ lives are going to get better in a certain defined frame, and not to be treated as if they are simply playthings in a larger political game.
Press TV: I have heard a statistic recently that 70 percent of the population of Gazans is under 30. Is that correct?
Andrew Whitley: I think that is a very reasonable statistics. Certainly, over 60 percent of the population is under 25.
Press TV: And, what is the unemployment rate?
Andrew Whitley: The unemployment rate is off the scale. Frankly, it is very hard to come up with a realistic unemployment rate in a situation like Gaza today, because there are very few real sources of employment. You can’t measure it in an economy that is destroyed like that. The real question to ask is how many people are actually in regular employment, which is a tiny percentage. Probably only of the active, potential labor force – not those who have given up – because many people have given up looking for a job, or think that there is no prospect for them, perhaps only 20-25 percent of people are actually working in a normal, regular, productive fashion, and most of those are on the payroll of either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA.
Press TV: Do the rest just sit around?
Andrew Whitley: Yes…. They don’t have much to do.
Press TV: So, what are the prospects for young people growing up in Gaza today?
Andrew Whitley: We try to provide an alternative. I recognize that we can’t do everything. Our financial means and our capacity and our mandate are limited to the refugee population, although let’s remind listeners and viewers that the refugee population is 70 percent of the population of Gaza – 1.1 million out 1.5 million are registered refugees. For those young people, we have a summer games program that provides some fun, some normality of life to them. Some remedial education. Some connections to Gaza’s ancient culture. Looking at their archeology, for example. Something to be able to give them something better to hope for than the drabness and the dreariness and the tensions and conflicts at home and in the streets that they face every single day. But, this is only a sop. We need to be able to give people, not just education, but a sense of where that is going to lead to. It is not in UNRWA’s hands. We are a UN organization; that’s a developmental organization, that can only go so far. We can’t create private sector jobs out of nothing. We have a small micro-enterprise program which can help people to be able to set up some more jobs. We have a skills training program that is overwhelmed with demand for its vocational training centers. But, these meet perhaps 10 percent of the goals. Most young people unfortunately will drift into the underground tunnel economy and, tragically, large numbers of young teenagers have been killed in these dangerous conditions, burrowing under the ground in order to be able to complete a tunnel or bring goods through the tunnel, mostly because they are so unsafe. Or else, they will join one of the militia groups and think that they will earn at least some credit and some kudos, for some brave, perhaps futile, act of resistance.
Press TV: With these conditions remaining the way they are, doesn’t this really cause more insecurity and instability for Israel, for the United States, for the world?
Andrew Whitley: That certainly is our view. We certainly believe very strongly that the policies that have been applied to Gaza are counterproductive. That they lead to increased radicalization. That it simply creates a tinderbox on Israel’s border, which, ultimately, is not in Israel’s interest. Gaza can’t be wished away. It is not some offshore island that is going to disappear and go somewhere else. It’s part of the geography of the region, whether you like it or not and Egypt has made clear that it is not going to assume responsibility for this problem. The problem lies, ultimately, in reuniting Gaza with the West Bank and dealing with the Palestinian issue on its own land.
Press TV: Do you think Israel is going to budge? You said that have been in negotiation. Are you hearing any melting of that wall?
Andrew Whitley: Not much. Not much in the near future.
Press TV: What about the United States? What could the United States do right now to just get things moving?
Andrew Whitley: I hope that the prisoner exchange, which has been brewing for a long time, will actually change the dynamics. Will change the mood. Will remove the pretext for the maintenance of the blockade, at least of the severity that it is, and start to allow the traditional business elites in Gaza – the strongly entrepreneurial class – who want to be able to establish links with the outside world, including with Israeli businesses, to actually be in a position where they can start having some normal business life and social life and that education can be completed. All those young Gazans who would like to be able to complete their education abroad or in the West Bank universities have not been able to do so. We need to be able to give them a sense of perspective in their future. So, I’m hoping, and I think many of us do, that, the prisoner exchange, when it happens, will not be an end in itself, but that it will lead to a virtuous circle.
Press TV: We are almost out of time, but I have one last question. It appears to many that the United States lacks political will right now in this situation. Is that what you are seeing?
Andrew Whitley: I don’t think so. I mean I don’t think that we should underestimate the determination of the United States within a difficult political environment. They have to work within practical constraints and they know what the limits are to which they can push and the timing is very important also. At what stage do you decide that you do really use the levers, the ‘tools in your toolbox’ as they sometimes call it, in order to be able to put pressure on? So, I think that we should be a bit more patient.
Press TV: Right, we’ll have to be patient. Thank you very much, Mr. Whitley for joining us today on Face to Face.