Amidst the global panic surrounding the coronavirus, which, in one European country alone – Spain – saw 694 dead on April 5 alone, it’s easy to overlook vulnerable communities in the MENA region.
And there cannot be one more vulnerable than Palestinian refugees both inside and outside Israel in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
Battling with Trump’s decision in 2018 to cut the annual US contribution of $360 million USD, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – the controversial UN agency responsible for taking care of 5 million Palestinians – is coming under fire from all directions.
UNRWA medical operations work on a shoestring and are at breaking point after being hit with a number of crises in recent months.
The coronavirus is of course a real concern as Palestinian refugee camps that I have reported from, in Lebanon, are squalid, miserable places which survive on a wing and a prayer when talking about healthcare. UNRWA medical operations work on a shoestring and are at breaking point after being hit with a number of crises in recent months, with COVID-19 only adding to the desperation.
And so it is fitting that the agency just launched an emergency “flash appeal” to raise $14 million USD in order to respond to the pandemic in the countries in which it operates – the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
UNRWA has already taken pre-emptive measures by closing all 144 of its schools, usually enrolling half a million students in all of those countries, which was a smart move. It’s also taken other measures like setting up a medical hotline in an attempt to limit the number of physical visits to their field clinics.
What’s important to remember is that it is harder for refugees in these camps to self-isolate since being social is the only respite many have to the misery of their existence. In Lebanon, Palestinians have been dehumanized so much by the Lebanese that they practically don’t exist and have long since been denied access to the state’s healthcare system, let alone access to the job market. Many live on cash handouts of $40 US dollars a month from UNRWA which they use to buy flour and vegetables just to eat.
To become ill in one of the camps in Beirut, like Burj Barajneh or Shatila, even before the coronavirus was a risky predicament for many.
To become ill in one of the camps in Beirut, like Burj Barajneh or Shatila (which I have reported from many times), even before the coronavirus was a risky predicament for many. Primary healthcare was stretched to the breaking point, with Palestinian doctors performing a minor miracle in innovation in many of the clinics which are drastically underfunded and, in many cases, simply don’t have basic equipment which would be a prerequisite for any western hospital to operate safely.
But now with COVID-19, there is a real worry that the infrastructure just simply won’t be able to cope with the numbers and might even be breeding grounds for new outbreaks – even if UNRWA reaches its goal of raising the $14 million USD that it needs.
And now international politics threatens to kick UNRWA when it is already on the ground pleading to be spared, as a cloud of corruption allegations hangs over the agency and Israel moves to take it over.
Recently, the interim head of UNRWA accused “pro-Israel groups of lobbying foreign parliaments to stop donations,” even as it buckles under the new strain of being hit by losing United States funding in 2018, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Furthermore, Christian Saunders, speaking to Reuters in his Gaza office, added that Israel was now seeking to replace United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) services for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem “with those of its own.”
The background to this and why Israel is taking advantage of this new crisis is that UNRWA is plagued by corruption scandals, the most recent one about its Chief Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl who resigned amid an investigation into misconduct allegations last November.
This has given Israel an opportunity to join the chorus of rapprochement from the Trump administration, taking it to the next level of farce by hyping up its unsubstantiated indictment to “anti-Israeli incitement,” presumably because UNRWA has the nerve to appeal to other donors to up the ante in defiance of US sanctions.
In an area which is not usually susceptible to irony or satire, the Israeli accusations seem to be trumped by the UN agency itself clearing its own people recently of any misdeed. In the same interview with the Post, Saunders, now Acting Commissioner-General, said the inquiry by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services was “complete and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had confirmed there had been no corruption or misuse of funds.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has no credibility when it comes to cleaning up corruption, as a wave of sexual harassment scandals have been swept under the carpet during his reign.
Guterres has no credibility whatsoever when it comes to cleaning up corruption though, as a wave of sexual harassment scandals have been swept under the carpet during his reign. Senior colleagues were protected and often promoted in the process. And, in New York, an African despot’s persecution of journalists who try to investigate and report on him, is carried out with impunity, such as the banning of one journalist from even entering the UN building.
His leadership is almost comical in fact, since the UN chief himself is not only tarnished by being the architect of cover ups he is also far from being squeaky clean himself. A Lisbon-based multi-billion dollar organization is linked to Guterres. The firm, which secretly paid him in 2016, is also linked to the sale of an energy firm to the Chinese in 2018, and marred by Hong Kong businessman Patrick Ho, who was jailed for bribing UN officials.
But for Palestinians, it’s no laughing matter.
The campaigning by the US and Israel to reign in UNRWA – and to allow Israel to take it over (at least in Gaza and the West bank) needs to be countered by EU countries, Japan, and Gulf Arab states immediately before things get out of hand and the media scrum of corona stories in the west eclipse any reporting over the UNRWA debacle.
The UN agency is under fire from those who wish to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis.
The UN agency, which against all the odds, is battling to survive and deliver healthcare in refugee camps is under fire from those who wish to take advantage of the corona crisis. If Israel takes over its own operations, goaded by the Trump administration, then what examples will this set for Lebanon, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, to do the same?
Finally, one of UNRWA’s failures is to not take the media seriously, as well as not grasping the nettle on mismanagement. Now is the time for Saunders to tackle these demons head-on and rescue UNRWA before COVID-19 takes it as its latest victim.