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Letter From the Middle East: A Sliver of Opportunity Emerges in the Gaza Strip

JERUSALEM — Robert Turner is recognized everywhere in the Gaza Strip, jokingly called its governor. To most people there, he is known simply as “Mr. Bob.” He departs on Thursday after serving as Gaza director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for three years — or, put another way, through two wars between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls the coastal enclave.

Mr. Turner said there was less hope and far more poverty and unemployment in the Gaza Strip now than when he arrived, yet amid the glacial pace of reconstruction and fierce Palestinian infighting, Mr. Turner saw a sliver of opportunity.

“There’s a very real shift in Israel,” he said in an interview, citing postwar moves allowing some Gaza exports to the West Bank and Israel, and more travel permits for businessmen. “When I talked to them about those changes before the war, I was told they were impossible. The changes are, to date, practically inconsequential — they’re not creating enough jobs — but the change from impossible to possible is important.” Mr. Turner’s agency, known as Unrwa, is the de facto government for the 1.3 million of the strip’s 1.8 million Palestinians classified as refugees. Its 13,000 employees run 240 schools and 21 health clinics (each doctor sees an average of 100 patients a day), pick up garbage in eight refugee camps, provide food aid to 848,000 people and oversee a $200 million construction program.

During last summer’s war, 91 of its schools sheltered 292,000 displaced residents; the last finally left mid-June. None of the 9,000 destroyed refugee homes have been rebuilt, but the relief agency has distributed $100 million for repairs and rental subsidies.

Now it faces a $101 million shortfall in its $680 million budget.

“If we can’t open our schools in September, I think the reaction of our population will be pretty severe,” Mr. Turner said. “We’re really the last institution standing. We’re the last thing the population trusts.” Mr. Turner, 51, has spent a quarter century as a humanitarian firefighter, in the Balkans and Africa, in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Indonesia and Kuwait. He is returning to his native British Columbia for a senior ministerial post dealing with forestry and archaeology.

He was one of the few foreigners living in the Gaza Strip; he generally joined his wife and two children in Jerusalem every other weekend (disclosure: his son was in my twins’ class). Last summer he slept on a cot in his office rather than the 10th-floor apartment whose tiny terrace overlooks Gaza’s port.

“This is my refuge,” he said. “It’s beautiful up there. I read or watch a show or smoke a cigar.” The lowest moment of his tenure came on July 24, 2014, when 16 people were killed at a school-turned-shelter in Beit Hanoun, a city in the northeast of the strip. Mr. Turner raced to the scene, where he was pelted with water bottles.

“We were attacked; we had to get back in the car,” he recalled.

“I’ve never seen rage like that. It was just this deep anger, it was like hatred, and we were the target, because we were the only ones there.” If Mr. Turner had a magic wand to make a single change in Gaza, “the simple answer would be lift the blockade,” he said. But the problem is “not just Israel,” he added, citing Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and “a multiplicity of international actors” as contributing to the dysfunction.

“You get this stew,” he said. “I’m not sure what all the ingredients are, I don’t know who the cooks are, and I’m not sure how it’s going to taste at the end.” The situation “is both more complicated and simpler than people make out,” he added.

“Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel is a false dichotomy. There’s not going to be, in the long term, a democratic Israeli state for Jewish people in the absence of a Palestinian state, and likewise there’s not going to be in the long- term a peaceful Palestinian state in the absence of Israel. This idea that you have to be for one and against the other is absurd.”

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(via NY Times)