Amid aid cuts, Gaza NGOs in 'catastrophic crisis'
In January, the US government announced it was withholding $65 million of its $125 million commitment for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). At the same time, the World Food Programme said its own budget cuts had forced it to halt food aid for about 60,000 Gaza residents.
These developments have exacerbated a trend that started following the 2014 war on Gaza, which destroyed or damaged the buildings of more than 100 local non-profit organisations – since then most have not been rebuilt or received any compensation to do so. The result has seen dramatic reductions in employees and the total closure of some organisations.
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"The local NGO crisis in the Gaza Strip is driven by three forces: the Israeli occupation, the internal division between the two main political parties, Hamas and Fatah and the lack of international funding," says Amjad Al-Shawa, head of PNGO [The Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network], a network of 133 organisations in Palestine, of which 65 are in Gaza.
"The health of our local NGOs is catastrophic."
In April last year, the Palestinian Authority [PA], represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, imposed punitive measures on the Strip as a tactic to force Hamas to give up power.
The cuts in electricity, wages and additional taxes on everything from fuel to commercial income have had a ripple effect. NGO, Atfaluna, which cares for deaf children, depends on a restaurant it owns for revenue. However, as residents’ purchasing ability plummeted, it was forced to close down.
Another cause of the crisis is what Dr Naim Ghalban considers a sort of "war" on select international organisations by Israel, thus cutting off a chief funding source for local NGOs.
|El-Wedad's clothes-distribution programme for needy families that has stopped due to lack of funding [El-Wedad]|
|When Israel figured out that NGOs in Gaza are critical to the stability of society here, they targeted international groups that have poured funding into the Strip|
"When Israel figured out that NGOs in Gaza are critical to the stability of society here, they targeted international groups that have poured funding into the Strip," says Ghalban, head of the El-Wedad Society for Community Rehabilitation
One of the first such attacks was on World Vision, which Israel charged with funding terrorism by supporting Hamas.
In August 2016, Israel accused World Vision's Gaza head, Mohammed El-Halabi, of redirecting millions of dollars to Hamas. After an intensive investigation, the Australian government found no reliable evidence of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the damage was done. In March 2017, after Israel blocked its bank account, World Vision laid off employees and closed its Gaza office. Their crucial work in the West Bank is continuing.
Another factor driving the cut in international funding is competing priorities in conflict-torn countries like Yemen and Syria.
"The Gulf crisis [in which Saudi Arabia and its allies have lined up against Qatar] has also played a part in the lack of funding; part of the NGOs’ support came from the Gulf, but now those countries are too caught up in their own issues," Al-Shawa adds.
"Yet, local NGOs help Palestinians – especially marginalised populations like those with disabilities – with many services that aren’t provided by the government or any other sector."
Overall, Al-Shawa estimates that more than half of international funding – which accounts for about 70 percent of revenue for local NGOs in the Strip – has been cut. That in turn affects jobs, since Ghalban estimates that local NGOs account for about 30 percent of employment in the Strip.
"We used to receive more than $1 million to work on more than 12 internationally funded projects annually," Ghalban says. "Now, we get about $300,000 – two to three internationally funded projects a year."
One example of the impact is the drop in the number of youngsters his NGO is able to employ, from more than 300 to a maximum of 12. Even at the larger NGOs, employees are receiving no more than 40 percent of their salaries.
Another example is the El-Amal Rehabilitation Society, which serves mostly hearing-impaired individuals in the Rafah area of Gaza. The severe lack of funding has meant most of its employees have worked without salaries for the past eight months. And if other donors don’t step in and fill the funding gap left by US President Donald Trump, support for 30 of the organisation’s 78 employees will permanently dry up.
|A teacher from the El-Amal Rehabilitation Society works with a deaf child [El-Amal]|
|But we can’t stop working, even when there is no money for salaries... We belong to this place and these people. We work with love|
"But we can't stop working, even when there is no money for salaries," says Mosab Au Daqqa, director of the adult education centre. "We belong to this place and these people. We work with love."
It doesn’t help that the Israeli government bans many Palestinian NGO employees from travelling through the Erez crossing for meetings, further education or networking.
"More than 90 percent of our staff can't travel, and that affects our ability to fundraise," explains Al-Shawa.
However, some of the problems are internal. Due to conflict between the two main political parties, it has become more difficult to form new organisations or set up bank accounts.
Another victim of these various obstacles is the Islamic University of Gaza’s Al-Kitab educational TV channel. In December, the station closed its doors and laid off its 51 employees. In protest, dozens of the staff members marched in front of the building, calling upon the administration to restore their jobs or find them alternatives so they can support their families.
"There is no solution in sight, because ultimately, it’s all political," sighs Al-Shawa. "And there is no horizon for a political solution right now. There are just short-term, temporary measures we can take, like raising awareness about our crises and mobilising people toward our cause."
Editor's note: A previously published version of this article incorrectly stated that World Vision had closed its Palestinian offices, not just its presence in Gaza. We are sorry for any confusion.
Ahmed Alnaouq is Gaza project manager for We Are Not Numbers.
Follow him on Twitter @AnsaAlnaouq