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Counting the Cost - Paying for Israel's War on the Camps, International Assistance for Palestinian Refugees

As the Sharon government prepares for the next round of military assaults in the 1967 occupied territories, the Palestinian population, including refugees, local and international NGOs as well as the United Nations are still tallying the costs of Israel’s brutal war on the camps that began at the end of February and was suspended three weeks later. During the three-week assault Israeli military forces killed nearly 200 Palestinians comprising more than 15 percent of the total number of Palestinians killed since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000. Israel’s military assault also exacted a heavy toll in damage, destruction and looting. In ‘Aida refugee camp in the Bethlehem area, for example, according to analysis of a survey completed by the PLO Department for Refugee Affairs, 36 percent of the refugees were directly affected by the assault, including deaths, injuries, damage to housing and cars.

Initial assessments by UNRWA indicate that around 1,800 refugee shelters were damaged during Israel’s three-week military assault in March. In Jenin camp in the northern West Bank, for example, nearly one-quarter of the total number of refugee shelters in the camp were damaged. The total number of refugee shelters destroyed by the Israeli military (141 shelters) during the three-week assault represents nearly half the total number of shelters destroyed in the Gaza Strip in the last 18 months since the uprising began.

Israel’s military assault also resulted in damage to 22 UNRWA schools, four health clinics, two ambulances and four camp service centers in addition to roads, alleyways and other infrastructure in the camps. Israeli and Palestinian newspapers have carried reports of widespread vandalism and looting by Israeli soldiers, reminiscent of 1948. This includes stolen money and jewelry, use of telephones for long-distance calls, senseless destruction of household items, and hate-filled graffiti.

UNRWA estimates that Israel’s three-week war on the camps will cost at least US $3.8 million in immediate costs. Repair and reconstruction of damaged and destroyed refugee shelters alone is estimated to cost US $2.8 million. This figure amounts to nearly half the total emergency budget requested by UNRWA for repair and rehabilitation of refugee shelters for all of 2002 and exceeds the budget for the West Bank by four times. During 2002, UNRWA intended to focus greater attention on the repair of refugee shelters in the poorer areas of the southern Gaza Strip and the hardest hit village areas where refugees reside in the West Bank. A significant proportion of the Agency’s emergency funds for shelter repair will now have to be redirected to the camps.

UNRWA’s estimate to cleanup and repair the widespread material damage left in the wake of Israel’s brutal assault on the camps does include costs related to the future social and health needs of the severely traumatized refugee population. The heavy loss of life in the camps and high number of injured refugees, for example, will likely result in a further rise in poverty and the number of special hardship cases due to the loss of household income, an increase in health needs including physical rehabilitation, and a greater need for remedial education to limit the impact of lost school days and trauma on refugee students.

The impact of Israel’s illegal military assault on Palestinian refugee camps, which are protected areas under international law, comes at a time when UNRWA is already facing budget problems to provide for both recurrent needs (i.e., education, health, social services) as part of its regular budget and the special needs (emergency food and cash assistance, shelter repair, temporary employment creation, emergency health and education, etc.) as part of its emergency budget. Even without the emergency situation in the occupied territories, insufficient donor contributions mean that UNRWA is unable to provide assistance to hundreds of refugees in particularly vulnerable economic situations. Some 14,000 refugee families, for example, are awaiting assistance for urgent shelter repair and rehabilitation while limited financial resources for maintenance have resulted in a deterioration of Agency facilities.

Since 1993, for example, the gap between UNRWA’s budgeted and actual expenditure has reached as much as US $50 to $70 million per year out of a total budget of around US$ 250 to $300 million. In real terms (required growth based on an annual weighted average rate of inflation in the Agency’s area of operations and the average annual growth rate of in the refugee population) the Agency’s budget has actually experienced negative growth. UNRWA’s emergency appeals, moreover, only include limited funds (US $8 million for 2002) for the entire range of indirect costs to the Agency’s education, health and social services program arising from the political and humanitarian crisis in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.

The damage inflicted by the Israeli military since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada also means that the international community is having to allocate financial resources to pay for the same projects several times over due to repeated damage and destruction. Since the beginning of the intifada, for example, the Al-Nour Rehabilitation Centre for the Visually Impaired in the Gaza Strip, has been damaged and repaired more than five times. In the case of the US, in particular, one of the largest donors to UNRWA’s regular budget and emergency appeals, the American government is, at the same time, providing financial resources to UNRWA and providing Israel with the weapons that destroy the projects paid for, in part, by US funds.

Over the course of more than three decades of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, UNRWA has repeatedly filed claims for damages resulting from Israel’s illegal military occupation. Israel has yet to pay. As long as the international community is willing to provide Israel with the resources it requires to maintain its current policies towards refugees and the Palestinian population in the 1967 occupied territories as well as pay for the damage (if only in part) brought about by these policies, it will be impossible to facilitate a solution to the refugee issue consistent with international law as set forth in General Assembly Resolution 194 and bring an end to Israel’s illegal occupation.