Are we really aiding Gaza? Marilyn Garson discusses the effect of donor states' actions upon Palestinian lives in the blockaded strip.

AuthorGarson, Marilyn

I lived and worked in the Gaza Strip from 2011 to 2015, as the economic director of Mercy Corps and then as a business and livelihoods consultant to the office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (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 thirteen 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 of the Gaza Strip today. I will argue that New Zealand's few tangible actions conflict with our stated position and our legal obligations.

I will also 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 Committee of the Red Cross and human rights and legal non-governmental organisations agree that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are occupied Palestinian territories, where international humanitarian law and the laws of occupation apply in full. Michael Lynk is the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, 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'. (1)

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. (2) 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.

Flagrant violations

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'. (3) His current report details the legal sources of states' obligations to act. States must not recognise 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 United Nations' 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 centres. 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...

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