Half a year with no welfare payments in Gaza

Rajaa Salah

The Electronic Intifada  /  April 25, 2023

When Kamal Ibrahim Alaam, 50, was evicted from his home, the former barber took his family of six and spent the night on the pavement outside a branch of the Ministry of Social Development in Khan Younis, surrounded by their furniture and bags of clothing.

The family had been unable to pay rent for two months and were evicted the day before, 16 March. Desperate for assistance, they went to the place they believed would provide it.

Yet the ministry has been of little help: It did not pay social welfare payments to Gaza families from October 2022 to April 2023. By the time the ministry disbursed payments on 18 April, it was too late for many families to financially recover, and the ministry did not reimburse for missed payments.

For the Alaam family, in particular, the lack of payments was devastating. They had lived comfortably in their small home in Khan Younis until the ceiling collapsed in 2017. For the past two years they rented a home. But the family struggled each month to pay the $100 rent, and without access to social welfare payments, their financial situation grew more dire.

That is how they ended up on the doorstep of the ministry’s branch in Khan Younis.

Thousands of families in Gaza struggled to meet their basic needs during the six-month period when the Ramallah-based Ministry of Social Development suspended payments.

Now, they are wondering if they can recover what they lost.

Political weapon

The withholding of funding is a common weapon in political disputes between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

While the Palestinian Authority has argued that it should distribute the payments directly to the recipients, Hamas has insisted on controlling the distribution process.

Louay al-Madhoun, the commissioner-general of the Ministry of Social Development in the Gaza Strip, said that the payments had not been disbursed because the Israeli occupying powers refused to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority.

On 1 March 2023, a Gaza-based group that advocates for the rights of the poor organized a protest at the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza City to demand the disbursement of the welfare payments. Sabhi al-Maghrebi, spokesperson for the group, which is called the High Council for Claiming the Rights of the Poor and Social Welfare Beneficiaries, stated that the protest aimed to draw attention to the withholding of social welfare payments in Gaza.

When the ministry finally disbursed the payments on 18 April, it paid over $35 million to 111,000 families, including 81,000 families in Gaza and 30,000 families in the West Bank.

The nearly 16-year Israeli siege and numerous Israeli wars on the Gaza Strip have pushed over 80 percent of the population into living below the national poverty line.

Mounting debts

Muhammad al-Nouri, 40, once worked as a public services clerk for the Gaza municipality. He was laid off in 2007, the same year Israel started its siege of Gaza, leading to an ongoing economic crisis.

He is currently the sole provider for his family of nine, including a 19-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.

Al-Nouri and his family live in a storage area beneath a relative’s house in Gaza City. He has built partitions in the large room where they live to give family members some semblance of privacy.

Al-Nouri has relied on social welfare for nearly a decade, yet for the past six months he did not receive a single welfare payment.

“I have been borrowing money from neighbors and relatives to support my daughters, accumulating a debt of $4,000 that I don’t know how to repay,” he said. “When I received a message on my mobile that I’d receive the social welfare payment, I had mixed feelings.”

Though he was happy the disbursement came before Eid, so he could buy his children clothes and candy, he was also unsure how he would pay off the debts accumulated over six months.

And, the most important question: When will they receive their next payment?

Fatima, who requested The Electronic Intifada use a pseudonym due to her family situation, lives in Gaza with her disabled husband and four children. She said that waiting for payments is agonizing.

“Every month, we are told that the current month will be the one we get paid, but it never materializes,” she said. “We hear promises and receive varying news, and though we hold on to hope, it is all in vain.”

Social welfare payments are the family’s primary means of support. Without them, they have struggled to buy groceries and pay bills.

“What have my children done to deserve a Ramadan without decorations and a lantern like their peers? And what have I done?” she said. “I am ashamed to encounter the grocers due to the debt that has accumulated.”

No more uncertainty

Al-Maghrebi, the spokesperson for the High Council for Claiming the Rights of the Poor and Social Welfare Beneficiaries, said that Palestinian politicians have tampered with welfare payments for years, and the ones who suffer are the recipients of the payments.

Families receive differing amounts of payments, averaging from $50 to $150 per month (distributed ideally on a quarterly basis), depending on the size of the family and if any members have disabilities.

Al-Maghrebi called on Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to assume his responsibilities toward impoverished families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by regularizing the disbursement dates so families do not have to live in uncertainty.

During the six-month period without social welfare payments, many families received one-time payments of approximately $100, disbursed by the United Nations.

That aid, funded by Qatar, was intended to ease the financial burden faced by families.

According to Aziza al-Kahlout, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development in Gaza, an additional 20,000 families remain on the waiting list for social welfare.

All of these families live below the poverty line and few have supplemental sources of income.

Rajaa Salah is a journalist based in Gaza