Twice a day, all adult movement ceases in the Gaza Strip. A wave of striped uniforms inundates the narrow streets. About 270,000 children are out of school, and each one seems to be screaming louder than every other child.
“I used to be so jealous of that uniform,” admitted a nonrefugee as the book bags and hair ties washed past us. “They had these big science competitions. … All I wanted in the world was to go to an UNRWA school.”
UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) educates 525,000 Palestinian refugee children as part of its assistance to five million Palestinian refugees. In Gaza, which has been blockaded for a decade and lacks an internationally recognized government, UNRWA serves two-thirds of the population. It is Gaza’s largest non-military employer, economic actor and source of liquidity. To threaten UNRWA is to imperil Gaza’s stability.
With almost 97 percent literacy, Gaza is fiercely dedicated to learning. Special noise ordinances prevail on exam days. In the middle of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, the local news still featured the results of high-school certification exams. Eighteen of the students had died since writing the tests.
Weeks after that seven-week war, I walked through an UNRWA school that continued to shelter families whose homes had been destroyed. Shelter residents had converted one classroom into a pre-school, making child-sized tables and chairs from salvaged wood. Every child wore a construction-paper crown. They graduated from pre-school later in the year, wearing gowns and mortarboards on the basketball court.
The shelter manager, also homeless, explained, “These children need to love learning. They may be displaced, but they will keep their education with them.”
Those are the aspirational reasons to support UNRWA schools.
Then there are matters of principle. Humanitarian assistance is meant to reflect the rights and needs of humans. Without warning and without reference to any such principles, U.S. President Donald Trump simply declined to deliver $305 million of the United States’ $365 million expected contribution to UNRWA.
On June 19, the U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process, Nikolay Mladenov, told the Security Council that UNRWA was “weeks away from painful cuts” affecting up to $250 million in emergency services in Gaza and elsewhere.
Education is UNRWA’s largest program, employing 22,000 of its 30,000 staff members. It will inevitably be affected, and UNRWA’s schools in Gaza are already stretched to their limit. Thirty-nine children share each classroom in the mornings. Then another 39 children arrive for the afternoon shift.
Education is life-enhancing, but UNRWA’s other core programs preserve life itself. Food, shelter, and health care cannot be withdrawn without risking survival. Schools merely—I wince—risk children’s futures.
As stress and violence escalate between Israel and Hamas, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is warning that “only by changing the reality on the ground … can we avert another disastrous, lethal conflict.”
UNRWA’s schools sheltered 293,000 displaced Gazans through the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Teams made up of school staff were in place to open each converted shelter at a moment’s notice, when their neighborhoods were struck. As each shelter opened, it was added to a list of protected buildings, to notify the Israeli armed forces that one more flagged UNRWA school was being designated an emergency shelter. One-sixth of Gaza’s population crammed into 90 UNRWA schools. The buildings were bulging, crumbling, one microbe away from a public health catastrophe—but they were there.
If UNRWA’s schools close and its staff disband, where will one-sixth of the population find shelter next time?
As the prospect of peace recedes, the need for civilian protection advances. If donors cannot be moved by the rights and aspirations of Palestinian children, at least they must see this. Gaza needs peace, and justice—and UNRWA in the meantime.
Marilyn Garson lived and worked in the Gaza Strip from 2011 to 2015, as the economic director of Mercy Corps and as the business and livelihoods advisor to UNRWA. Her blog is Contrapuntal: Transforming Gaza. Follow her on Twitter @skinonbothsides.