Image: UNRWA food distribution to shelters, Gaza City, July 2014.  Property Marilyn Garson

Nikki Haley has threatened to abandon American commitments to UNRWA, the agency serving registered Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Trump has not aimed at Palestinian political actors.  By targeting UNRWA, he has taken visceral aim at refugees.  Amidst the strategic analysis, think first about the food.

Donor states fund UNRWA to palliate some of the most egregious deprivations caused by the occupation and displacement.  UNRWA is the donor states’ maintenance kit, in the absence – or in lieu – of a solution.

The largest of UNRWA’s operations, and the only one I know, is the Gaza Strip.  From June 2013 – September 2015, I worked as UNRWA’s Business and Livelihoods Consultant in Gaza.

Any jeopardy to UNRWA sends a shudder through blockaded Gaza, because UNRWA (then) represented 16% of Gaza’s GDP.[1]  Most urgently, a threat to UNRWA’s budget imperils the food relief, schools and health clinics available to the two-thirds of Gazans who are registered Palestinian refugees.

What is this food relief, and why do Gazans need it?

Donors do not fund meals.  Relief food is a package of flour, cooking oil and other commodities, equivalent to a percentage of the daily calories and nutrients that are necessary to live a healthy life.  A detailed study conducted in 2011 – 2012[2] found that Gaza’s most food-insecure families were receiving relief food, and then spending up to 55% of their income to meet the rest of their food needs.

Imagine spending half of your income on food.  These families cannot make do with less.  It mystifies me how they make do at all.

Gaza’s food insecurity is not caused by an absence of food.  It is caused by an absence of livelihoods – of ways to earn income to buy food.   Therefore, images of food on supermarket shelves do not feed the poor, neither in your country nor in Gaza.  Poor Gazans have exceptionally few ways to earn money, to buy the food in those images.  Hence the critical importance of UNRWA’s assistance.

I was a member of the task force which overhauled the assessment of poverty and entitlement among (then) 800,000 Gazan recipients of UNRWA food relief.  Weekly for 16 months – disrupted by the war of 2014 – we debated privacy, devised operations and tested technologies.

It disturbed me deeply to find myself apportioning scarcity behind a wall.  What constitutes fairness and dignity there?  I struggled with the ethics of the task although, of course, the problem wasn’t the poverty assessment algorithm.

The problem was the wall.   We were grafting temporary relief strategies onto an unending injustice.

We rolled the system out in 2015, knowing that nothing will ever be equitable behind that wall.

That sharp-edged scarcity is refugees’ status quo.   There is a simple way to make it worse:  withhold funds from UNRWA.    Make less food available.

If Trump uses UNRWA as his lever, he will knowingly exacerbate the scarcity that already stalks two million Gazans.  The blockade deprives them of the rights they might use in their own interest.  They cannot leave.  They have no vote.  They have no voice and not the slightest effective influence over the actions of the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians have plenty of grounds, and a growing critical scholarship, to query the neoliberal forms and the ultimate impacts of Western aid on their society.   I feel encouraged to read their literature on food sovereignty.

However, relief is about securing one’s next meal – today.   Trump is threatening not to fulfill pledges that will already have been programmed.  If he does that, he will drag communities from an economy of scarcity down to a politics of hunger.

A civilized response needs to distinguish and protect essential human rights now, while Palestinians formulate a political strategy for these rapidly changing circumstances.

Politics are negotiated; food must not be.   End the injustice, do not eliminate the means to cope with it.

As we call upon donors to write those tiresome checks for relief that was supposed to be temporary, remember and remind them:  the problem is the wall.

[1]see Study pg 6

[2]see study pg 6