Less than a week into the Israel-Hamas war, the United Nations appealed to the world asking for nearly $300 million in aid to assist Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Within a month, the figure nearly quadrupled as the entire Gaza Strip plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Three months into the war, international donors, mostly governments, have provided just over half of the requested funds through the UN’s plan, according to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service.
The figures reveal that only four-fifths of the emergency funding needed to ensure food security and roughly a quarter of what’s needed for shelter, water and sanitation have been provided.
Aid organizations say that nearly the entire population of the Gaza Strip faces a humanitarian crisis. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a UN-backed food security agency, reported on December 21 that “virtually all households are skipping meals every day” in Gaza. The spread of diseases, including hepatitis, diarrhea and respiratory infections, is putting more lives at risk, according to the World Health Organization.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) is reporting that nearly 80% of Gaza’s civilian population of roughly 2.2 million has been displaced since Israel launched its military operation in response to Hamas’ assault on October 7, when militants killed around 1,200 people and took more than 200 others hostage, according to Israeli authorities.
Many are sheltering in tents or overcrowded accommodations in Rafah in southern Gaza, after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told people to flee both northern Gaza and Khan Younis in the south. Displaced Palestinians, many of whom left their homes with little or nothing, say they are struggling to stay dry and warm as winter temperatures and rains set in.
Meanwhile, the UN agency which provides services to more than half of Gaza’s civilians is on the verge of collapse, its leader said in a letter to the President of the UN General Assembly on December 7. As of January 12, more than 150 staff members have been killed — more than in any other conflict — and at least 70% of the remaining staff are displaced, according to the UNRWA.
The IDF has begun pulling its soldiers out of Gaza, but has said it expects fighting to continue throughout 2024. On December 22, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for further extended humanitarian pauses to allow more aid into Gaza. There has been no pause in fighting since a seven-day span at the end of November which was negotiated as part of an Israel-Hamas hostage release deal.
Gaza’s long dependence on aid
Gaza has been among the world’s top recipients of aid per capita for years. Before the war, four in five people depended on international help and as many as 1.84 million people were food insecure, according to the World Food Program.
The unemployment rate for Gaza was as high as 45% in 2022, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. In 2022, according to the World Bank, South Africa had the highest unemployment rate in the world at 29.8%, and Gaza and the West Bank together were third at 25.7%.
In 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords. Under the agreement, the PLO gave up armed resistance against Israel in return for promises of an independent Palestinian state. The accords also established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the limited self-rule government for Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas, an Islamist organization established in 1987, opposed the accords. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the group sees Israel as an illegitimate state occupying the West Bank.
Rising frustration with the PA on a number of fronts, including the lack of change, led to Hamas winning the majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election. Fatah, the political party forming the backbone of the PA, and Hamas formed a short-lived coalition government. The latter forcefully took control of Gaza in June 2007. Since then, the PA only exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“From mid-1990s to early 2000s, Palestine is in this state-building project and a lot of (development) aid goes towards that,” said Yara Asi, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida who studies Palestinian health and human rights. “In the early 2000s, you start seeing disillusionment — the promises of Oslo did not come to fruition.”
In 2007, Hamas militants seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to the PA. Within months, Israel’s security cabinet would designate Gaza as “hostile territory.”
Israel then instituted an ongoing blockade, severely limiting the movement of people and goods by land, sea or air, which it argues is essential to prevent Hamas from arming itself. Restrictions extend to goods the Israelis consider as having a dual civilian and military use, such as concrete, agricultural fertilizer compounds and some medical equipment.
“Lots of everyday goods and especially building materials could not enter the Gaza Strip because they are on the so-called ‘dual-use material’ list,” said René Wildangel, an adjunct fellow at the International Hellenic University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and a former human rights expert for the Middle East at Amnesty International.
This makes reconstruction difficult, Wildangel said.
The UN said in a 2022 report that the restrictions have had a “profound impact” on daily living conditions in Gaza and “undermined Gaza’s economy, resulting in high unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency.”
In the wake of the blockade, trade stalled, jobs disappeared, and more and more families fell into poverty, while the population in Gaza grew by nearly 60%, according to an analysis of Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics data.
With Hamas classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, most of the international community cut off direct investment to Gaza after 2007.
But the magnitude of need in Gaza meant emergency and humanitarian assistance had to keep coming. Data published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows total foreign aid to the Palestinian territories has been notably higher since the Hamas takeover compared with the post-Oslo era.
But even as foreign aid to Gaza rose in the wake of the Hamas takeover, the amount of aid fluctuates annually, OECD data shows.
“Aid to Palestinians is adhoc, it depends on who the (US) president is, depends on who is in charge in Europe; Qatar may wake up one day and decide they want (to help),” Asi told CNN. “So, Palestinians are not given any ability to plan things for the future.”
After 2007, the US bolstered its economic assistance to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
In 2018, the Trump administration cut about $200 million in Palestinian aid and halted contributions to UNRWA. Though Biden reinstated assistance in 2021, the amounts have never returned to Obama-era levels, which reached as high as $1 billion in 2009.
Qatar has also been a major donor to Gaza, contributing about $1.3 billion since 2019, according to OECD data. The country has even provided cash to pay civil servants’ salaries and shipped fuel to help with generating electricity since at least 2018 with Israel’s approval.
The PA opposed the funding of its rival, and the Israeli intelligence community didn’t back it, according to a former senior defense ministry official, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that he supported the Qatari payments, “to return calm to (Israeli) villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster (in Gaza).” Israeli and international media reported Netanyahu hoped that an emboldened Hamas and divided Palestinian factions would prevent efforts to create a Palestinian state, CNN has reported.
Qatar maintains close ties with both Hamas and Western states, including the United States.
Qatar’s funding has been “a lifeline to the Hamas government” ever since its takeover in 2007, Wildangel said, but added that these funds — some of which have been delivered in suitcases full of cash — have been very hard to track.
Israeli leadership fought over post-war plans for Gaza during a security cabinet meeting on January 4, CNN reported, and ministers have outlined conflicting plans for its future governance.
Meanwhile, civilians in Gaza continue to face desperate hardship. The UN emergency relief chief said earlier last week that the “great majority” of 400,000 Gazans at risk of starving “are actually in famine, not just at risk of famine” while the enclave faces a continuing near-total communications blackout. Medicine for Israeli hostages and Palestinians entered Gaza last Wednesday after Qatar brokered a deal with Israel and Hamas. For every box of medication given to a hostage, Palestinians in Gaza would receive 1,000 boxes.
This story has been updated.
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