When the dust has finally settled on Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli mortar hit on the school in Beit Hanoun, where Palestinian families were sheltering, is certain to be seen as one of its signal events.
The commissioner general for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (Unwra), Pierre Krahenbuhl, declared the human suffering to be “appalling and intolerable”, adding that he could not find the words to express his indignation.
The role of Unwra in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, where it provides support services to Palestinian refugees, is unlike that of any other UN agencies. Established in 1948 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for refugees after Israel’s War of Independence, it has been operational since 1950 and its mandate was recently extended to 2017.
Essentially, Unwra’s job is to keep the aspirations of Palestine’s refugees alive until such a time as there is a final settlement of the Middle East conflict.
Other refugee agencies, such as those looking after millions who have fled Syria, are there to provide food, health-care and shelter on a temporary basis until the refugees can return to their homeland or are resettled.
Unwra, in contrast, has become a permanent bureaucracy, providing extensive services to Palestinian refugees and allowing their hopes and hatreds to cascade down the generations.
The scale of its operations are breathtaking. It has a permanent staff of 33,000, including teachers and health workers, and spends up to $1 billion a year providing services.
Indeed, despite the narrative often heard about the abject poverty among the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, they are among the biggest recipients of foreign assistance — through Unwra and other agencies — of any group in the world. The US, Britain and the EU are the biggest three donors to its annual budget.
No one can have any argument with an agency that brings humanitarian relief and education to an impoverished people. But there have long been concerns that Unwra schools and camps have helped foster the attitudes that have given Hamas such a strong foothold in the politics of Gaza and the West Bank.
The Centre for Near East Policy Research released a video in 2013 that showed classes being taught at an Unwra-sponsored “Camp Jihad” for Palestinian children. The emphasis of the tuition was on the right of the youngsters to return to the areas left by their grandparents, including Jaffa and Haifa.
A key demand of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in the present conflict, made from the relative comfort of his exile in Qatar, is that Israel and Egypt lift their economic blockade of Gaza. It is a perfectly acceptable request given Gaza’s shattered economy. What is often forgotten is that much of the damage has not been caused by Israel, which has kept the Gaza crossings open, but by the government in Egypt. It wants nothing to do with Hamas, which is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel has tightened its economic grip. In October 2013, it cut off supplies of concrete, aggregates and other construction materials after discovering a well-made hard tunnel reaching into a Negev community. Eliminating the tunnels was one of Israel’s primary motivations for a ground offensive.
One of the curiosities is how an alleged economic blockade that has been so effective in keeping food, medicine, water out of Gaza has been so easily penetrated by those delivering military supplies including advanced Iranian ballistic missiles.
Efforts by Israel and Egypt to weaken Hamas economically have not had a huge impact. This is almost certainly because funds still flow quite freely from international organisations such as Unwra, through Fatah and directly from Gulf states such as Qatar.
The potential for fast economic development in Gaza is there. But an aid dependency and deep hostility by Hamas to its neighbours makes it impossible to unlock the potential.