Misinformation plagues UNRWA-Palestinian dialogue

A climate of rumors and hearsay prevails in the Palestinian community, severely affecting UNRWA’s services and their beneficiaries. “[Palestinians] only have UNRWA, and any time there is a rumor going around, it is overanalyzed because, ‘What if?’ So people panic,” Zizette Darkazally, head of communications for UNRWA in Lebanon, told The Daily Star.
At the beginning of 2016, UNRWA enacted a new health care policy that changed the structure of medical spending for Palestinians and implemented a cost-sharing arrangement to direct more funds to expensive tertiary care.
Under the policy, beneficiaries would have to contribute between 5 and 15 percent of hospitalization costs for secondary treatment – treatment received in hospitals – depending on the kind of health provider. It also increased the ceiling of treatment costs from $4,200 to $5,000.

“The Palestinians are scared because they don’t have a state or someone to take care of them [other than UNRWA] so what are they going to do?” asked Ahmad Abdel-Hadi, a member of the Palestinian delegation negotiating with UNRWA.
The backlash from the community against the new policy was swift and vocal. It led to a series of escalating protests that shut UNRWA offices in camps across the country. Amid the confusion and speculation over the policy, there was a significant amount of false and misleading information propagated about the policy – both in the media and in the community.
But mixed in with this misinformation there were also genuine concerns and grievances. Darkazally says UNRWA has been open to discussing and negotiating these issues. In this vein, four dialogue committees of specialists from the organization and community have been established to study such contentious issues.
“I have said fairly publicly in our meetings that I have learned it’s important to keep the [Palestinian] political leadership sighted on major developments before we implement them,” UNRWA country Director Matthias Schmale told The Daily Star. He explained that there had been a number of lessons learned during the hospitalization crisis and that he hoped to create a closer relationship with Palestinian leadership going forward.
However, the new health policy was only the latest and most obvious area where misinformation and rumors have affected UNRWA programming. The dialogue committees are tackling four main areas: health policy, education, the reconstruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp, and issues affecting Palestinian refugees from Syria. The education committee in particular has been plagued by the rumors that run through the community.
Two of the biggest concerns for the Palestinian negotiators are that administration of UNRWA schools will be turned over to the Lebanese state or UNHCR, something firmly denied by UNRWA, or that the organization’s technical and vocational training center will start charging fees. Darkazally denied this too, pointing out that the school is a flagship program for UNRWA, which is increasing funding to the facility to raise the number of classes, courses, and students who can receive training. She says that there is no plan to start charging entrance fees.

The prevalence of such misunderstandings is an issue that UNRWA is actively trying to combat. “I think that it’s a complex picture, there is not just one factor that must be taken into consideration understanding the rumors. There is [also] understandable worry,” Schmale said. “When we try to be transparent and say we have a budget deficit – again we have a projected budget deficit for this year of $71 million – very quickly all sorts of rumors start.”
“Also the economic situation is very tough for us,” Abdel-Hadi said. “We were visiting the camps and I saw a family breaking Ramadan fast with a watermelon, which is nothing.” In a deprived and desperate environment, he notes that people take any news very seriously but that there is also a lot of speculation.
Schmale explained that UNRWA is trying to improve communications, not just with the Palestinian leadership but also with the community. The rise of social media, he believes, holds the key to the better transmission of information between UNRWA and Palestinians.
“WhatsApp groups are very widespread in the Palestinian community and I think there’s much more to do in improving a more regular flow of communication, and we’re using social media more to be linked to that community. [Information exchange] is not just one way, it’s also about engagement,” Schmale said.
However, even with a better, more open dialogue, Schmale believes problems will persist.
“I anticipate further tensions and protests, and it is their right to express discontent, I just hope that from our side there is more transparency and solid information flow than in the past,” he explained.
“But we have to accept as UNRWA that we don’t always get our communication right.”