Originally published at Common Dreams

Gaza residents are sifting through trash to find food amid soaring poverty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a crippling 13-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said Monday.

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), told The Guardian that “there is despair and hopelessness” not only in Gaza but throughout Palestine and the Palestinian refugee diaspora in neighboring and nearby nations.

“In Gaza, people are going through the garbage,” Lazzarini said. “More people are fighting to provide one or two meals a day to their families.” 

Earlier on Monday, Lazzarini delivered UNRWA’s annual report to the U.N. General Assembly. In it, he noted the dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections among Palestinian refugees. Cases have soared from 200 in July to over 10,000 today.

“Beyond the health crisis, Covid-19 is also unleashing a brutal pandemic of abject poverty that is making Palestine refugees feel hopeless,” said Lazzarini. 

Lazzarini continued:

A deep sense of abandonment and despair has permeated many recent discussions I have had with young Palestine refugees. I hear about a renewed rush towards migration boats across the Mediterranean that regularly end tragically. My teams also report an increased prevalence of child labor, of child marriage, and of families who say they survive on one meal or even no meal every day.

“Despair and loss of hope make a dangerous cocktail in a highly volatile region, particularly for the youth, who feel increasingly disenfranchised and trapped,” Lazzarini added. “Despair is a threat to peace and stability.”

Lazzarini also addressed UNRWA’s financial crisis. The agency is suffering from a $130 budget shortfall, largely a result of the Trump administration’s suspension of funding, which fell from $360 million in 2017 to $60 million in 2018 to nothing since then. Saudi Arabia last week donated $25 million in a bid to help bridge the gap caused by the loss of funding from the U.S., which had been UNRWA’s largest contributor (pdf). 

“My priority now is to raise the necessary funds to sustain all our essential services,” Lazzarini said in his annual report. “Failing to raise the necessary funds will impact both the salaries of 28,000 staff and the delivery of critical services, including the schooling of more than half a million girls and boys.”

Gaza’s 2 million residents—more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the U.N.—have been subjected to a brutal blockade since 2007 over acts of Palestinian resistance, including Hamas rocket attacks against Israel. Although Israel ended its illegal 38-year occupation and settler colonization of Gaza in 2005, it maintains a physical and economic stranglehold on the territory, and has waged three major wars there since 2008, killing and wounding thousands of civilians while destroying much of the territory.

The privation suffered by the people of Gaza has been so severe that human rights activists often refer to it as the “world’s largest open-air prison.” 

More than 1.4 million Gazans are refugees and descendants of those who fled to the tiny coastal enclave from other parts of Palestine during the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the ethnic cleansing campaign that occurred during the bloody founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948-49. Over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes—often through the threat of or actual massacres—and were never allowed to return. Around 300,000 additional refugees were created by Israel’s conquest and illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.

Today, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees living around the world.