Mondoweiss recently published Marilyn Garson’s new memoir Reading Maimonides in Gaza, which recounts her time working in Gaza with aid agencies during two Israeli wars on the strip. Below, Garson reflects on the recent news that the Trump administration is cutting aid to UNRWA as the World Bank and UN Special Rapporteur warn of an imminent collapse of Gaza society.
Reading Maimonides in Gaza is a memoir of four years and two wars in Gaza. I went there to work with employers and job-seekers, and I met Gazans through their abilities. They overturned what I thought I knew about conflict, and aid, and the content of my Judaism. From 2013 – 2015, I worked for UNRWA. Although I am no fan of elderly bureaucracies, I joined the system that relieves – without resolving – some of the suffering caused by the Gaza blockade. Why? Because having the imperfect buffer of UNRWA was so much better than having no buffer at all.
This is partly a story of the 2014 war, and UNRWA within it. I stayed in Gaza through the war, as part of the team that managed 90 UNRWA emergency shelters. The shelters eventually housed 293,000 of the Gazans who were displaced, but still trapped behind the blockade walls. During those days of bombing and invasion, in those full-to-bursting schools, I understood UNRWA. It has nothing to do with being perfect. It’s all about being present.
When Gaza was attacked, UNRWA’s social and physical infrastructure were there. UNRWA’s flagged schools became instant emergency shelters. Thousands of UNRWA’s Palestinian staff kept working in the streets, under fire. Its clinics and doctors kept treating the injured. Its fleet of trucks continued to deliver water and food, and collect rubbish. Its procurement and supply chains stood up an airlift, two countries distant. Its warehouses and distribution networks kept the supplies moving.
Gaza’s present danger invokes the appalling counterfactuals of that war. If UNRWA is structurally weakened, who will assist two million Gazans next time? If someone has to muster an emergency response from scratch, how many trucks, equipment, people, generators, tons of food, water, diapers, medicines will get through the blockade to reach the hundreds of thousands of people who will be sheltering in … which buildings will shelter them?
As an enabler of the current regime, UNRWA is a 360-degree target of criticism. Reform it, challenge the donors who send passive relief in lieu of more effective action. Do all that, but who in their humanitarian mind would start by undercutting the food, schools, health and emergency services available to refugees in Gaza, Syria, and UNRWA’s other fields?
Only Donald Trump could start there; he who thinks that aid should buy adulation. It would have been foolish and destabilizing for him to cut America’s future support to UNRWA. To abandon America’s existing commitments is simply monstrous.
The realtime catastrophe of Gaza brings the next, avoidable war nearer: another rain of bombs upon a locked city. I have caught myself glancing at my windowsills for drifts of the chalky dust of 18,000 decimated homes. I have listened at night for the screams of the people who ranged through the streets, pleading to be let into any safe place. Behind my eyelids, my neighbours are again running toward the fire station, looking for survivors. The body remembers these things. If my fear for Gaza is this sensory while I am safe at home, I cannot begin to guess what Gazans are feeling.
While Gaza waits, the UN Special Rapporteur refers to the “chasm between the right to health and the harrowing conditions on the ground”. The World Bank, which is hardly given to hand-wringing, describes the “rapid collapse in socio-economic conditions”. Conferences argue the aid response, rather than asking why aid is needed. As long as that is their formulation, yes, aid will be urgently, increasingly needed.
More talk, less illumination. Now what? The Special Rapporteur surveys the linkage between the occupation and Palestinians’ deteriorating health and social outcomes. He concludes pointedly that this knowledge “leaves to the rest of us the obligation to act decisively and effectively.”
I agree: this cruel season must be an inflection point. Palestinians are changing the terms. A positive assertion of human and political rights can capture the mainstream imagination. More people will shout it, in a louder voice.
When Palestinian enjoy their rights, when there is accountability for the crimes that have been committed, the real estate will be made to work.
It won’t happen fast enough for the people locked in Gaza. They need aid, protection, and UNRWA in the meantime.
Marilyn Garson’s new memoir, Reading Maimonides in Gaza, is now on sale in the Mondoweiss Store. A portion of the proceeds from every copy will go to support We Are Not Numbers, a Gaza-based project featuring news and essays written by Palestinian youth.