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A timely webinar on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

About 300 people tune in for an informative and passionate discussion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mohammed Ibrahim via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Just days after an airstrike killed seven World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza and as experts says famine is imminent in northern Gaza, the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness held a webinar Wednesday on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Nearly 300 people attended. Watch the 69-minute webinar here.

Catherine Gordon, OPW’s Representative for International Issues, hosted a panel featuring:

  • Nader Abu Amsha, executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches’ Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees
  • Bill Deere, director of the Washington Representative Office of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East
  • Hassan El-Tayyab, advocacy organizer and legislative director for Middle East Policy with the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Abu Amsha pointed out that many people forget that Gazans have lived under siege since 2007. It’s “the most intensively inhabited place in the world,” he said, and in the north, about 500,000 people “are living on the edge of famine,” eating “grass, the food of animals, cactus leaves — whatever they can eat in order to survive.”

About 40 of the Middle East Council of Churches’ 100 or so staff in Gaza have moved to Rafah, where most Palestinians are now sheltering and where Israel is planning an assault in an attempt to defeat Hamas. To date, MECC has lost three staff. Two were killed in airstrikes in their homes.

Nader Abu Amsha

“In the south, we have managed to reorganize staff to run the work in the primary health care center,” he said. About 500 people receive services there each day. Teams also work with families in shelters, offering psychosocial support, activities, hygiene kits and limited cash support. But the $200 available per family doesn’t go far when, because of the shortages, a pound of rice costs $15.

“We believe our staff are heroes,” he said. “They themselves are forcibly displaced people who are concerned about their families. They’re fortunate they can work and get some income for their families.”

Deere noted United States funding for UNRWA was paused on Jan. 26 after 12 UNRWA employees allegedly took part in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. All 12 were terminated, he said. UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, “called it a betrayal of their role as UN employees and a betrayal to fellow Palestinians,” Deere said. “I don’t know what more the man could have done.”

Now in its 75th year, UNRWA’s mission is to provide education, health care and social services to Palestinian refugees “until a political settlement is reached that addresses their plight,” Deere said. “UNRWA is built in a manner designed to turn the keys over to someone.”

In addition to Gaza, UNRWA operates in the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. If its school system were in the United States, it would be the nation’s fourth largest. Seven million patients visit its health care clinics every year. Deere called UNRWA “a key component in many ways to regional stability.”

Before the Oct. 7 attacks, 13,000 of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees worked in Gaza. The “overwhelming number” of employees are Palestinian refugees, Deere said. “We are the backbone of the human response in Gaza because of our presence prior to Oct. 7,” when UNRWA was feeding 1.2 million Gazans, providing 60% of the food that entered Gaza.

Bill Deere

“Because of the 2007 blockade, our role increased dramatically,” Deere said. UNRWA maintains warehouses, “what’s left of the schools,” and shelters for 1.1 million people who find themselves “in the most bare and horrific of conditions.”

“You don’t just turn UNRWA off,” Deere said. “You do that, and the humanitarian response stops.”

“We mourn the deaths of the seven World Central Kitchen employees. They join the 170 UNRWA employees who have also been killed,” Deere said. “That is a sad record for the UN in terms of lost staff.”

Serving so many refugees comes down to financial support, Deere said. Last year, the United States provided $422 million to UNRWA, which because the payments have been stopped now faces a $270 million funding gap this year.

“Right now, we are living month to month,” Deere said. UNRWA has enough funds to operate through the end of June, “which gets us through the school year. That’s important.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “made a big pitch” two weeks ago to members of the European Union to boost their contributions to UNRWA. “We will have to see if the U.S. will partner with us to continue to find other donors,” he said. “A year from now, we hope to see Congress lift its pause on funding.”

El-Tayyab journeyed to Palestine-Israel in January, where he soon learned how “the work of UNRWA is absolutely critical.” He met with clergy, Jewish and Muslim leaders and with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the State of Palestine and the Palestinian National Authority.

One highlight was spending time with UNRWA staff in Jerusalem. He caught a shuttle from Jerusalem to Amman, Jordan, and talked to an UNRWA staffer who works off hours with her colleagues helping evacuate 50 Palestinian children who have suffered severe burns and other injuries. Many of their families refuse treatment in the U.S., he said, because they fear coming to this country.

“That just crushed me, hearing that from an UNRWA staffer,” El-Tayyab said. “The children are afraid of the U.S. because of our complicity.”

Hassan El-Tayyab

“I left feeling I need to do more and tell more people,” El-Tayyab said. He asked those joining the webinar to contact their elected officials in the House and Senate to urge reinstating funding to UNRWA and “build pressure for a ceasefire.”

Members of Congress “need to get back in the driver’s seat,” he said. For those elected officials who balk at doing what people of faith are demanding of them, “you might reframe it by saying, ‘Let’s enforce U.S. law, which says we cannot provide weapons to countries that block U.S. humanitarian assistance — which is clearly happening,” El-Tayyab said.

“It’s a very difficult time for all of us working on this issue. We appreciate you taking time to get the word out,” Gordon told the three guests. “We need a ceasefire, and we need to cease sending weapons.”

“Stay safe, be well, and take care of yourselves,” she told those gathered. “Much gratitude.”

To urge the Biden administration and your U.S. representative and U.S. senators to uphold the United States’ obligation to prevent genocide in Gaza by supporting continued financial contributions to UNRWA and rejecting further military aid and assistance to Israel until it complies with the International Court of Justice ruling and adheres to international law, go here.

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