Fifty-sixth General Assembly
14th Meeting (AM)
ISRAELI RESTRICTIONS PLACED ON PALESTINE RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY
CRITICIZED BY SPEAKERS IN FOURTH COMMITTEE
Say Refugee Suffering Exacerbated by Measures;
Israel Defends Actions, Citing Country’s Larger Security Concerns
Security checks and restrictions on the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), as well as its persistent serious financial situation, were highlighted this morning, as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) continued its general debate on the Agency's activities.
Kuwait's representative said the suffering of the refugees had been exacerbated by the measures imposed by Israel under the pretext of security. While pretending that it was acting to protect its people, Israel was actually tightening the noose around the neck of the Palestinian Authority, exerting pressure to make the leadership yield concessions. He stressed that it was essential that UNRWA carry out its functions in all five fields of operation without burdening the refugees with any financial responsibilities.
Syria's representative said Israel had been trying to destroy the Agency’s work, even threatening the Commissioner-General himself. The current prospects for peace were becoming more and more distant, as successive Israeli governments acted with violent impunity. The number of refugees had been on the rise for many years, while the Agency's budget had been decreasing. Syria was hosting some refugees and providing many services, spending more than many donor countries. As noted in the Commissioner-General's report, Syria's expenditure on health, education and housing services was in the millions of dollars.
Israel’s representative defended his Government’s actions, saying the past year had been a difficult time for Israel, with terrorist attacks, drive-by shootings, car bombings and suicide bombings occurring almost every day. The same security measures placed a heavy burden on importers, merchants and employers and must also apply to UNRWA personnel, so as to ensure the security of all. It was regrettable that the Commissioner-General's report ignored the obvious context of those measures, he added. While Israel was genuinely sympathetic to the humanitarian plight of the refugees, it was concerned at the one-sided and subjective view presented by UNRWA towards the political issues in the region.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said in response that many speakers describing the situation in the occupied territory had described their experiences in the field, which was almost identical to descriptions on which his report was based.
On the Agency’s finances, the representative of the United States said that while his country would like to support the entire package of UNRWA resolutions, it could not support language that tended to prejudge final status negotiations between the parties. That would not serve the cause of assistance to Palestinian refugees and would not bring Middle East peace any closer. However, the United States, as the largest single donor to the Agency, would continue to provide a high level of support to it.
Japan's representative said that as a major donor, his country attached great importance to humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. He urged other Member States, particularly Arab countries, to consider providing additional financial support. Japan was concerned about the vicious cycle of violence in the Middle East, which was having adverse effects on UNRWA's work. It was the responsibility of both Palestinians and Israelis to do their utmost to end it.
Norway's representative noted that, even when a peaceful solution was found to the Middle East conflict, UNRWA would still be needed for a considerable time, as many refugee issues remained unresolved. Noting that a healthy financial situation within the Agency was of vital interest to the refugees, their host countries and the peace process, he said it was a shared international responsibility to enable the Agency to carry out the tasks assigned to it by the General Assembly.
Also speaking this morning were the representatives of Ghana, Cuba, Cyprus, Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Oman, Botswana, Qatar, Bahrain and China, as well as the observer for the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Speaking in exercise of the right of reply were the representatives of Cyprus, Egypt and the observer of Palestine.
The Fourth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 7 November.
The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met today to continue its general debate on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). [For background, see Press Release GA/SPD/221 of 29 October 2001.]
YAW OSEI (Ghana) joined other delegations in expressing appreciation for the work and report of UNRWA. It had utilized its funds well for the benefit of the education, health and general welfare of the Palestinian refugees. He was concerned that budgetary problems would erode those services and hoped for further response to appeals for both the regular budget and emergency needs. He commended donors who had responded favorably to emergency appeals. Efficiency efforts made by UNRWA should be complemented by increased donor response.
New programmes, he said, should be introduced only with the necessary funding support, and he urged agencies that had cooperated with UNRWA in providing services to expand that cooperation. Adequate services needed to be maintained until a just and lasting peace was in place. Ghana would, therefore, support the extension of UNRWA’s mandate when it expired. The international community had a responsibility to maintain its services to the refugees until a just solution to the Middle East question had been achieved.
ORLANDO REQUEIJO (Cuba) said the escalation of violence against civilians in the region meant that the importance of UNRWA's work had increased. The solution to the problems of the 4 million Palestinian refugees became daily more distant and peace seemed an unattainable chimera.
Ever since its creation, UNRWA had been carrying out praiseworthy work in tackling the terrible living conditions of the refugees, he said. The Commissioner-General's report reflected the vast number of the Agency's activities with regard to its humanitarian mission. However, budgetary and staff shortages were compromising its work, just when it was required most.
He said Cuba supported the Agency's appeal for the maintenance and increase of resources. It was regrettable that a freeze was still in effect on the allocation of scholarships and fellowships and that Israel's restrictions on freedom of movement continued to make UNRWA's work even more difficult. The Agency's problems required firm treatment by the international community, particularly the developed countries. Despite its own economic difficulties, his country would continue to provide young Palestinians with opportunities for professional training in Cuba.
HANS BRATTSKAR (Norway) said that even when a peaceful solution was found to the Middle East conflict, UNRWA would still be needed for a considerable time, as many refugee issues remained unresolved. A healthy financial situation within the Agency was of vital interest to the refugees and their host countries, as well as to the peace process.
He said Norway remained committed to maintaining the level of its support and would, subject to parliamentary approval, grant about $100 million to UNRWA's General Fund for the year 2002. Over and above its annual general contribution in 2001, the Norwegian Government had responded to UNRWA's first and third emergency appeals with a total contribution of about $1.3 million. Approximately $700,000 had been granted for refugee housing in Gaza. It was a shared international responsibility to enable the Agency to carry out the tasks assigned to it by the General Assembly.
FAYSSAL MEKDAD (Syria) commended the Commissioner-General of UNRWA for alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people, and continuing to work under difficult circumstances. He also expressed gratitude to donors who had supported the Agency. There was hope that its activities, and the welfare of the refugees, could be improved, despite the fact that Israel had been trying to destroy the results of UNRWA’s work, even threatening the Commissioner-General himself.
The refugees, he said, had an inalienable right to return to their homes, emphasized year after year by General Assembly resolutions. Ignoring that right undermined efforts for a comprehensive settlement to the Middle East question, and ignored international law. At the current time, the prospects for peace were becoming more and more distant, as successive Israeli governments acted with violent impunity. The number of refugees had been on the rise for many years, while the budget of UNRWA had been decreasing. Syria was hosting some refugees and providing many services, expending more than many of the donor countries. The report notes the expenditures of Syria, which was in the millions of dollars for health, education and housing services.
The international community, however, had the responsibility for the welfare of the refugees and must maintain all of the programmes of the agencies, particularly those provided in kind, and must not try to transfer any responsibilities to the host countries. Syria looked forward to the day when the refugees could return home, though at the moment, the deaths of many refugees at the hand of Israel made those prospects seem bleak.
GEORGE KASOULIDES (Cyprus), aligning his statement with that of Belgium on behalf of the European Union, expressed deep appreciation to UNRWA and its Commissioner-General for their work under adverse conditions. The relief they brought to Palestinian refugees, living in conditions of overcrowding and abject poverty, was the least the international community could offer. Cyprus’ empathy with its Near East neighbors was made stronger by its own experience of displacement following the Turkish invasion of 1974, and its own hope that the right to return to homes and properties would be respected in its own case.
Cyprus shared the concern, he said, over the Agency’s financial difficulties and negative impact on refugee welfare. He was hopeful that the peace process, now in tatters, would resume. In that consideration, the role of UNRWA was even more crucial now and he joined the appeal for increased contributions. Cyprus had created its own scheme of assistance, which included technical aid and training for Palestinian officials and civil servants. But UNRWA’s work must continue until a solution was found to the refugee issue, and long afterward. The quest for a just and lasting settlement continued, but human beings were a priority.
MANSOUR AYYAD AL-OTAIBI (Kuwait) said there was no doubt that UNRWA's health, education and relief services were indispensable and should continue at the same level until it completed its mandate. The Agency represented the international community's responsibility towards the refugees and it could not transfer that responsibility elsewhere until the Middle East conflict was resolved.
He said it was essential that UNRWA carry out its functions in all five zones without discrimination and without tasking the refugees with any financial responsibilities. Kuwait was accustomed to providing assistance to the refugees and had contributed to many infrastructure projects of the Palestinian Authority. Kuwait had paid $150 million to the Jerusalem Fund, as well as many others. Kuwait continued to support UNRWA through financial contributions to its regular budget out of conviction in the just cause of the Palestinian people.
The suffering of the Palestinian refugees had been exacerbated by the policies and practices pursued by Israel under the pretext of protecting the Israeli people, he said. Israel's policy of closures, demolition of houses and confiscation of land for the construction of illegal settlements were violations of international law. While pretending that it was acting in defence of national security, Israel was actually tightening the noose around the neck of the Palestinian Authority and applying pressure to make its leadership yield concessions.
ERNEST L. JOHNSON (United States) said his country had long supported UNRWA's fine work and continued to be its largest single donor. Given the difficult circumstances facing the Palestinian refugees, it was clear that UNRWA's work was as indispensable today as it had ever been. The United States applauded the dedication of the Agency's staff and the efficiencies that had been realized in its operations.
He said his country would like to be in a position to support the entire package of UNRWA resolutions as a vote of confidence in the Agency's leadership and staff. But the United States could not support language that would tend to prejudge final status negotiations between the parties. That would not serve the cause of assistance to Palestinian refugees and would not bring Middle East peace any closer. However, the United States would continue to provide a high level of support to UNRWA and hoped that others would as well.
MURAT KARAGOZ (Turkey), aligning himself with the statement of the European Union, expressed regret that the Middle East situation gave little reason for hope that an atmosphere conducive to lasting peace, security and stability would soon be achieved. Turkey deplored the vicious cycle of violence that had claimed the lives of approximately 900 people, mostly Palestinians, and was saddened by each and every loss of life. Both parties had a responsibility to curb the violence and to de-escalate tensions on the ground.
He said it was more evident than ever that the way to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive solution to the Middle East problem was through the resumption of negotiations. The recommendations contained in the Sharm el-Sheik fact-finding committee's report were an important milestone on the road to peace. Turkey deplored the violence, closures and restrictions on freedom of movement in Gaza and the West Bank that impaired the smooth running of UNRWA's humanitarian operations. It was regrettable that, as a result of closures and other measures, more than 76 per cent of the Palestinians living in refugee camps had been pushed below the poverty line.
UNRWA's recurrent financial crises remained a cause of serious concern for all, he said. The Commissioner-General's efforts to widen the Agency's spectrum of donors could include the private sector as a driving force. Humanitarian problems called for collective responsibility and required pragmatic steps. To that end, Turkey endorsed the report of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, of which it was Chairman. Turkey also applauded the Agency's new policies, such as introducing an operational support officers programme, and welcomed the current phase of the reform process.
Expressing regret over remarks made about his country by the representative of Cyprus, he rejected that delegate's statement, describing it as an attempt to distort the reality in Cyprus. The remarks had nothing to do with the topic under discussion and the representative of northern Cyprus would give a further response.
KATSUHIKO TAKAHASHI (Japan) commended the staff and Commissioner-General of UNRWA on their report and their efforts to improve the financial conditions of the Agency. As a major donor, Japan attached great importance to humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. By improving their economic and social conditions, UNRWA contributed greatly to stability in the region. In view of its severe financial difficulties, he hoped the agency would continue to conduct its work as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, he would also urge Member States, in particular Arab States, to consider providing additional financial support.
Japan continued to express concern, he said, over the vicious cycle of violence in the Middle East. He urged both Palestinians and Israelis to do their utmost to put an end to it, implementing, in particular, the recommendations contained in the Mitchell report. The tense situation was having adverse effects on the work of UNRWA, and he hoped that it would not continue. The Agency played a vital role in the region. Japan, therefore, reiterated its strong commitment and support for its activities and hoped that the international community, as a whole, would remain so committed.
MOHAMED SALAH TEKAYA (Tunisia) expressed appreciation to the Commissioner-General and staff of UNRWA for their untiring efforts to alleviate the plight of the Palestine refugees in very difficult circumstances. Tunisia also appreciated the contribution of the host countries, which bore a heavy financial burden as a result of hosting the refugees, and those of the donor countries, which made it possible for the Agency to carry out its mandate.
He said UNRWA had proven its important role in the lives of the refugees and its strong relationship with them. Tunisia reaffirmed the need for the Agency to continue its work in all fields of operation and to maintain the level and quality of its services in a manner commensurate with the needs of the refugees. Tunisia called for a special effort to support UNRWA in the present critical circumstances. That would reflect positively on the living conditions and the psychological state of the refugees.
UNRWA faced additional difficulties as a result of the closures by Israel and restrictions that kept supplies from reaching local communities, as well as the restrictions on the movement of medical and other supplies. Added to those were Israeli violations of the human rights of the Palestinians. Violence was bound to continue unless the international community dealt comprehensively with the causes of the confrontation and tension, which had their roots in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
ABDUL AZIZ KAID (Yemen) thanked the Commissioner-General and the staff of UNRWA for their work and report, which showed that there was only more repression and ugliness in the area. The suffering of the Palestinian people was due to Israeli’s total disregard of international law.
He asked if the Palestinians were not human, with corresponding rights and, if so, why the Israelis were not being deterred from their inhumane practices, as well as why the Palestinians were being asked to act with restraint in their dire situation. Given that situation, the work of UNRWA was crucial and should be allowed to continue.
AHMED AL-HARTHY (Saudi Arabia) said the Commissioner-General's report had shown the international community in an objective manner the tragedy of the Palestinian people. The number of refugees was increasing daily and had now reached 4 million. That increased the international community's responsibility to deal with the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of return or compensation.
He noted that UNRWA's staff continued to carry out their mission in dangerous circumstances and in spite of the closure of bridges between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the closure of roads within those territories. Israel's closure policy violated human rights, international law, conventions on immunities and privileges and agreements between the Agency and Israel.
UNRWA's severe financial situation, he said, imposed a responsibility on the international community to increase its contributions to the Agency, so that it could carry out its functions until the refugee problem was resolved in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions. Saudi Arabia supported the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) on the budget of 2002-2003 biennium, including the addition of five new international posts. The United Nations should make an urgent payment of $5.1 million, incurred by UNRWA as a result of moving its headquarters to Gaza.
J.K. SHINKAIYE (Nigeria) said his country was very concerned about the deteriorating political, social and economic situation in the region during the reporting period. It had led to deteriorating living conditions for the refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, and consequently posed very serious challenges and obstacles to UNRWA's efforts to render necessary services and assistance to refugees.
He said it was regrettable that restrictive measures imposed by Israeli authorities in the Palestinian territory had made it very difficult for the Agency to deliver emergency relief and repair shelters in various refugee camps. Nigeria urged the Israeli authorities to comply with international humanitarian law and grant UNRWA unrestricted access to refugees.
Ultimately, resolving the problems facing the refugees would involve a solution to the whole question of the Middle East, he emphasized. Nigeria was fully aware of the difficulties in that area and urged all parties concerned to demonstrate the necessary political will to address the issue of peace.
FUAD MUBARAK AL-HINAI (Oman) thanked the Commissioner-General of UNRWA for his efforts, as well as his report, which illuminated many aspects of the agency’s work, as well as the difficulties under which it was working. The needs it was meeting continued to increase, as well as the consequences of the Israeli occupation and its inhumane practices. Even United Nations personnel and the Commissioner-General himself had suffered from Israeli actions.
It was clear that Israel was leading the region toward disaster, he said, trampling international agreements under foot. He stressed the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the continued necessity of maintaining the agency’s work, and the need for the international community to obtain Israel’s compliance with international law and to maintain its responsibility towards the refugees. Finally he expressed appreciation to donor countries for the support they had provided in easing the suffering of Palestinian refugees.
GOBE PITSO (Botswana) thanked the Commissioner-General and staff of UNRWA for their dedication in providing services to the needy people of Palestine, under difficult conditions. Palestinian refugees were a vulnerable group who continued to suffer multiple forms of discrimination and had been denied access to basic amenities. Therefore, there was an imperative to maintain the provision of education, health, relief and social services to them until there was a durable solution to the refugee issue. Its mandate should be continued beyond June 2002.
With deep concern, he noted UNRWA’s budget deficit and urged donor agencies to respond to its pleas. It was also highly regrettable that the work environment of UNRWA had gone through drastic changes recently. Impediments on the movements of UNRWA staff were inconsistent with the letter and the spirit of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, other international conventions, and agreements with Israel. The totality of problems faced by the agency -- including a declining economy -- could mean the defeat of its objectives. He, therefore, urged increased pledges by donors for their important work.
FAISAL ABDULLAH. AL-MARRI (Qatar) said today's discussion came at a time when UNRWA was facing serious challenges, which had become even worse since September 2000. Israel's closure policy had led to the isolation of towns and villages, which in turn meant that the Agency could not carry out its activities. The United Nations had a historic responsibility to the refugees, whose plight was a challenge to the international community.
He stressed that the refugees had a natural right to return home and to compensation if they could not return. Israel's use of brute force could undermine neither those rights, nor the right of restitution of confiscated lands, nor the right to an independent State with Jerusalem as its capital. He was particularly concerned about UNRWA's continuous financial difficulties, which could only diminish the quality and level of its services. That was unfair not only to the refugees, but also for the Agency's staff, who were forced to continue working with an extremely reduced budget.
He emphasized that UNRWA was a provisional measure and not a permanent solution to the refugee problem. The international community also had a political role; apply pressure in order to make Israel fulfil its obligations under international law. It was up to the international community to ensure respect for international law and a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question.
FAISAL AL-ZAYANI (Bahrain) commended the Commissioner-General of UNRWA for the report, particularly for sections that described the difficulties that Israeli restrictions were causing, both for the refugees and for the operations of the Agency itself. The refugees were facing even more severe economic conditions due to the ensuing collapse of the Palestinian economy. Isolating various parts of the occupied territories was particularly harmful.
Prompt action was needed to overcome the financial deficit of UNRWA, so that the Agency could increase its services commensurate with the increase of the refugee population. The agency had used a creative approach to maintain its services despite financial problems, among them integrative approaches, such as five-year plans that included vocational training. He expressed appreciation to donors who had generously responded to appeals on behalf of UNRWA, however he hoped that contributions would increase to a point where the Agency was not under financial restraints on its services.
The refugee problem was a political one, he said. The implementation of relevant United Nations resolutions was crucial, including those that provided for the welfare of the refugees until such time as a just and lasting peace was achieved based on the principles of land for peace.
MOSHE BENZIONI (Israel) said that within the framework of the peace process, beginning in 1993, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that the subject of refugees would be one of the topics discussed during final status negotiations. Israel, therefore, could not accept efforts by third parties to predetermine or dictate what the outcome of such future bilateral negotiations should be.
Parts of the resolutions considered by the Fourth Committee did just that, he said. They were rife with politicization and did not respect the terms of reference of the peace process. For those reasons, Israel did not believe the Committee to be the appropriate forum to discuss issues related to the origins and resolution of the refugee issue.
Expressing genuine sympathy for the humanitarian plight of the refugees, he said the past year had been a difficult time for Israel, where terrorist attacks, drive-by shootings, car bombings and suicide bombings had occurred almost every day. Israel was not only justified, but also obligated to protect the lives of its citizens. Security checks of cargo at crossing points and restrictions on movement placed a heavy burden on importers, merchants and employers. Some of those measures must also apply to UNRWA personnel, so as to ensure the security of all.
It was regrettable that the Commissioner-General had chosen to ignore the obvious context of those security measures, he said. The application of security measures to UNRWA had a legal basis in the 1967 exchange of letters known as the Comay-Michelmore Agreement governing relations with the Agency in areas administered by Israel. It expressly and unequivocally allowed for measures based on security requirements. By clinging to short-sighted and rigid positions that ignored the security context in which events were taking place, UNRWA was doing a disservice to the refugees.
Noting that UNRWA was deeply involved in the education of a large proportion of Palestinian children, he said it was most disturbing that textbooks and curricula in its schools continued to propagate hatred and rejection of Israel, rather than promote peace and acceptance. Not only were the existing programmes severely limited, but they did not even pretend to teach tolerance for Israel, or for Israelis or for peace.
He said his country was concerned at the one-sided and subjective view presented by the UNRWA towards the political issues in the region. Israel continued to support the Agency's humanitarian mission, but could not accept the politicization of those issues in order to score political points against Israel. Too many of the references in the annual resolutions were one-sided, politicized and biased, undermining the very aims that their sponsors claimed to hold dear.
WANG DONGHUA (China) said that his country had always supported all efforts conducive to peace in the Middle East, including the positive efforts of UNRWA. In the recent atmosphere of violence and tension, the situation of the refugees and the work of UNRWA had become more difficult. He appreciated UNRWA’s efforts despite those difficulties, and said China would continue to support them. He called for increased international support to UNWRA, and hoped that Israel would help facilitate its work.
YUSSEF KANAAN, observer for the Organization of the Islamic Conference, expressed his appreciation to UNRWA and its Commissioner-General for their tireless efforts in continuing the Agency’s crucial role in halting the further deterioration of the situation of the Palestinian refugees. He was concerned, however, over the fact that the gulf between the resources of the Agency and the needs of the refugees continued to widen, and over its difficult work environment caused by Israeli practices and restrictions. Those same restrictions had caused an increase in Palestinians living below the poverty line.
The role of UNRWA remained vital until a just and comprehensive peace was reached in the region. Resolution of the refugee problem was a prerequisite for such a peace, based on total Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian and Arab territories and compliance with relevant United Nations resolutions. He reiterated support for the revitalization of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, concerning the return or compensation of Palestinian refugees. Compensation was an integral element, but not a substitute, for the right of return. In closing, he expressed gratitude to UNRWA, the host countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and international donors.
Right of Reply
Mr. KASOULIDES (Cyprus), in exercise of the right of reply, responding to Turkey’s remarks, said all international bodies recognized only one Cyprus and that was the Republic of Cyprus.
MARWAN A. KILANI, observer for Palestine, speaking in right of reply, said it was hard to imagine the arrogance and stubbornness in the Israeli delegate's misinterpretation of historical facts. His arguments claimed that the whole world was wrong and only Israel was right. He had not even had the courage to call Palestinian refugees by their proper name, referring to them as "Arab refugees" or "Middle East refugees".
He described Israel's citation of security considerations as laughable. The Commissioner-General did not constitute a threat and had himself been subjected to threats by Israeli occupying forces, who had not hesitated to point their rifles
at his head. As for the school curriculum, he said the Agency did not have a curriculum of that kind, but used the curricula of the host countries. Such allegations were made by people who wanted to destroy UNRWA.
HOSSAM ZAKI (Egypt), in right of reply, expressed amazement at the statement of Israel, which he called shameless. He contradicted a number of points concerning the history of the partition of Palestine and said that Israel now controlled much more territory than it was given by that partition. He also disputed Israel’s version of other events, such as the reasons for Jews leaving Egypt after the creation of the State of Israel.
PETER HANSEN, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, commenting on the remarks by Israel's representative, said many speakers describing the situation in the occupied territory had spoken of the same experiences in the field on which his report was based. The situation on the ground and the contents of the report were identical.
On the teaching of tolerance in UNRWA schools, he said that two years ago the Israeli representative had praised the Agency's work in teaching tolerance. That work was continuing today and the Israeli delegate's comments this morning were, therefore, puzzling.
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