Gaza awaits the return of essential social welfare programs

The Ministry of Social Development is expected to resume services in Gaza soon, following its departure from the Strip last year due to conflict with Hamas.

al-monitor A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag near the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip, Dec. 21, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Feb 21, 2020

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza is awaiting the arrival early next week of a high-level delegation from the Ramallah-based Ministry of Social Development. The ministry is expected to reinstate its programs in the Gaza Strip that were folded last May.

The ministry's programs were discontinued following disputes between the central government in Ramallah and the Hamas administration in Gaza over the running of the ministry. Hamas had undermined the implementation of the programs and the collection of demographic data. In a statement issued by Ramallah in August 2019, the Ministry of Social Development held Hamas responsible for the cessation of its Gaza programs, which benefit the poor.

Among the most significant programs offered by the ministry is the cash transfer scheme, which serves some 71,000 poor families in Gaza. Beneficiaries receive quarterly payments between $230 and $515, depending on financial need.

Until recently, the Ministry of Social Development was the only ministry not affected by the Palestinian political division. The Ramallah-based government had supervised the ministry in Gaza and allocated its budget since 2011.

​Yet, in a Jan. 29 press release, Ramallah’s Ministry of Social Development announced it had regained direct supervision of its main programs in Gaza, returning a cohort of managers to its Gaza headquarters. The success of this move, according to the ministry, would depend on a comfortable work environment for ministry staff and its ability to work free from pressure, obstructions or unprofessional interventions from any party.

Louay al-Madhoun, the ministry's commissioner-general for southern governorates, told Al-Monitor that problems could be traced back to the formation of the Palestinian government, headed by Mohammad Shtayyeh, in April 2019. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah had resigned, claiming that the reconciliation process with Hamas had stalled. Hamas, meanwhile, refused to cooperate with the new ministers, accusing the new government of separatism and defying the national consensus. Hamas then formed a separate administrative committee in Gaza to manage ministries outside the sway of appointed officials in Ramallah.

Following these developments, Madhoun explained, the minister of social development, Ahmed Majdalani, swiftly established a committee of ministry employees affiliated with the Ramallah government to ensure the continuity of the ministry’s work in Gaza and to supervise the implementation of programs. However, the committee was subsequently exposed to threats by the Hamas government, which ordered the prohibition of its operations.

​“It is unreasonable for the minister [Majdalani] to sign agreements and partnerships with international institutions and finance the ministry’s programs when they will be implemented by employees who are not affiliated with him — that is, employees of the Hamas government,” Madhoun said. “How can they be held responsible for important and sensitive matters that affect the lives of citizens if he does not have any authority over them nor is he able to hold them accountable, since they do not fall within the legal, administrative and financial jurisdiction of his government?”

Madhoun continued, “It is only natural for the mission to be carried out by employees of the Palestinian government in Ramallah.”

Madhoun said that the ministry’s charter and services necessitated the intervention of a number of international mediators and independent individuals to negotiate the obstacles between the Hamas government and the ministry in Ramallah. Accordingly, Majdalani and Ghazi Hamad, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza, reached an agreement that 15 ministry employees from the Ramallah government bearing central responsibilities would return to Gaza. The next phase would be the redeployment of a larger number of employees.

Madhoun further indicated that the majority of the ministry’s programs and operations have been restored, including poverty reduction schemes, in-kind cash assistance and economic empowerment, as well as programs for families, children and individuals with disabilities. Additional programs include information systems relating to computerized cash assistance, coordination and management of funded projects, administrative and financial affairs related to government employees, and oversight of legal associations licensed by the Ministry of Interior.

An August 2019 order from Majdalani stated that ministry employees were obliged to stay in their homes and refrain from escalating affairs by going to the ministry in Gaza, according to Madhoun. Majdalani further rejected the operations of Hamas, whose committee was obstructing employees' work. 

Madhoun added that the ministerial delegation from Ramallah will be tasked with restoring the screening of national programs in Gaza and training employees. Some departments will be managed by a bilateral committee of employees from both Gaza and Ramallah.

“In a significant step toward achieving this agreement, new humanitarian cases will be taken on early next month," he said. "We will also work to approve 10,000 audited cases for the anti-poverty program for the first time in several years.”

Hamad, meanwhile, refused to discuss the matter with Al-Monitor, given the sensitivity of the issue.

Gaza resident Ibtihal Muhammad, 30, told Al-Monitor, “I hope to be able to receive financial assistance from the ministry's anti-poverty program.”

She submitted the required documents for assistance to the ministry over three years ago but has not yet received funds. Her ex-husband lives in Egypt, and she has since been unable to find work and struggles to feed herself and her daughter each day.

Moeen Rajab, a professor of economics at Gaza's al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor that the disruption of the national program had undermined the collection and updating of data. He noted that it was preferable for the ministry to remain neutral, given the nature of the services it provides to Gaza citizens, who are enduring extreme economic hardship.

According to an Oct. 17 statement from the ministry in Gaza, the rate of poverty and unemployment in the Strip in 2019 reached nearly 75%, confirming that poverty indicators in Gaza are among the highest in the world.

​Rajab said the ministry must stay abreast of developments in Gaza without interrupting its provision of services. The ministry's obligations extend to a whole host of disadvantaged groups, he said, and the Palestinian Authority must increase financial support to the ministry's programs and development.

“Its relief role must gradually transform into a developmental role that assists in creating job opportunities for the poor and empowering them economically,” he said.

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