FOURTH COMMITTEE MEMBERS SEEK TO REINFORCE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES, AS ‘SAFETY NET’ AMID DETERIORATING SITUATION

8 November 2007
GA/SPD/388

FOURTH COMMITTEE MEMBERS SEEK TO REINFORCE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES, AS ‘SAFETY NET’ AMID DETERIORATING SITUATION

8 November 2007
General Assembly
GA/SPD/388
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-second General Assembly

Fourth Committee

20th Meeting (AM)

FOURTH COMMITTEE MEMBERS SEEK TO REINFORCE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AGENCY

FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES, AS ‘SAFETY NET’ AMID DETERIORATING SITUATION

Centrality of Agency Reaffirmed, As Budget Shortfall Nears $100 Million,

Overcrowding in Camps, Closures, Displacements, Import Restrictions Persist

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) continued its general debate on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), as many speakers called for increased financial support for the Agency -- beset by an ever growing need for services amid the burden of the deteriorating situation -- thereby offsetting significant budget deficits and furthering its critical, stabilizing work in the region.

Calling the question of refugees the “cornerstone” of the Palestinian question and asserting that it would become one of the most important facets of the eventual comprehensive settlement, Jordan’s representative said that the Agency’s role would remain central until a final solution was found.  He underscored, however, that UNRWA had been unable to provide for the growing needs in the various refugee camps throughout the Middle East because of its own funding problems.  He, therefore, called on donors to raise their level of contributions to UNRWA, whose budget deficit was expected to reach over $100 million in 2007.  

India’s representative of India pointed to overcrowded refugee camps in need of upgrading amid the tightening of access, including from the closure of the Sufa border crossing and the weakened financial position of the Palestinian Authority, owing to the lengthy international boycott.  Inter-Palestinian conflict had led some refugees to seek assistance for the very first time, after decades of self-reliance.  He said that in light of the imbalance created by those increasing demands for assistance and UNRWA’s growing budgetary shortfall, greater international efforts were necessary to improve the Agency’s financial health.

Voicing strong support for the Agency’s mandate and describing UNRWA as a stabilizing force in the region, the representative of the United States called on Member States, including those in the region, to increase their donations to UNRWA’s budget.  She also stressed that UNRWA’s 2006 organization development plan was important to improve its ability to do its work and to further the goal of reform her country strongly supported that Agency’s request for a staffing increase, which would cement its success in management reform.

Similarly highlighting deteriorating conditions throughout the region and the stresses that placed on the Agency, Norway’s representative said the situation for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and among those displaced from Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon were particularly desperate, and UNRWA had had to provide the safety net.  Nahr al-Bared should not be forgotten as thousands of the camp’s refugees were facing a harsh winter.  Noting Norway’s $2 million contribution, he urged all donors to contribute to the emergency appeal for the camp.

Turning to the situation in the Gaza Strip, he said that the social and economic situation was rapidly deteriorating.  The cost of providing food aid was rising steadily as import restrictions increased, and those costs were borne by UNRWA and its donor countries.  Emergency measures also placed a heavy burden on the Agency. 

Egypt’s delegate said that the situation in the Gaza Strip, where there was widespread hunger and collapsing infrastructure and services showed that a humanitarian disaster was possible.  There was a need to provide freedom of movement and instil confidence in those who were experiencing increasing despair.  He said the continuing occupation was pushing people towards more violence and extremism -– a situation that stymied efforts to reach a peace agreement.

Putting those issues in a larger context, Turkey’s delegate said that the political dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians had reached one of the most intensive levels in years.  His country wished that the window of opportunity created by that momentum could be seized and the way paved for a comprehensive and lasting settlement.  He urged both parties to refrain from any action that might jeopardize the prospect for a permanent peace.

The representatives of Switzerland, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Sudan also spoke.

The representative from the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See spoke as well.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd offered concluding remarks.

The Committee will meet on Monday, 12 November, at 10 a.m. to conclude its general debate on the work of UNRWA and to begin consideration of the Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.

Background

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met today to continue its general debate on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). 

The Committee had before it several reports on that issue, summarized in yesterday’s press release GA/SPD/387. 

MIRJANA SPOLJARIC ( Switzerland) commended the UNRWA’s Advisory Commission for its constructive observations, which would provide the General Assembly with the means to effectively supervise the Agency’s activities.  The organizational development programme had produced encouraging intermediate results, and she called on all parties to support the continuation of that process.

She praised the commitment shown by the Commissioner-General and the Agency’s staff in the face of an extremely constraining, and in some cases, a very dangerous environment.  Voicing concern about the deterioration of the socio-economic and security situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, she called on all parties concerned to honour their obligations and to facilitate secure and unimpeded access by UNRWA personnel to Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territory.  She urged Israeli authorities to return the taxes imposed at the Karni crossing and to exempt the Agency of such fees in the future, in accordance with international commitments made by Israel.

While commending host States for their generosity towards the Palestinian refugees, she called on them to facilitate UNRWA’s strategic approach to the management of its programmes.  For its part, Switzerland would continue to be a predictable and reliable partner of UNRWA at all levels.  It was willing to support projects to improve the living conditions of refugees, using the example of the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared camp, where UNRWA had worked closely with the Lebanese authorities.

CAN DIZDAR (Turkey), aligning himself with the statement made yesterday on behalf of the European Union, said that the political dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians had reached one of the most intensive levels in years.  His country wished that the window of opportunity created by that momentum could be seized and the way paved for a comprehensive and lasting settlement.  He welcomed the ongoing negotiation process between the two sides, and hoped its outcome could prepare the ground for a successful international conference on the Middle East, which would break the entrenched stalemate and bring to life the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.

He said his country followed the developments on the ground with serious concern.  Unilateral measures, which bring about nothing but misery and desperation, could not be of benefit for everyone.  Genuine political dialogue was needed, and both sides should act with utmost restraint, now more than ever.   Turkey urged both parties to refrain from any action that might jeopardize the prospect for a permanent peace.

The future of the Palestinian refugees also had a serious humanitarian dimension, he said.  As long as the conflict remained unsettled, its political socio-economic and psychological toll on the innocent would grow.  The maintenance of an effective relief and humanitarian operation was becoming increasingly difficult, and in that effort, UNRWA’s achievements were highly commendable.  Turkey welcomed and supported the steps taken in the context of UNRWA’s ongoing reform process and felt privileged to be chairing the working group on the financing of the Agency.  It was incumbent on the international community to extend its full support to UNRWA.  In that vein, Turkey remained fully committed to UNRWA’s goals and mandate, and had increased it annual voluntary contribution and responded to appeals for emergency aid.

SHRIPAD YASSO NAIK, Member of Parliament, India, noted that UNRWA’s budgetary shortfall was growing, while demands on its assistance had increased.  The overcrowded refugee camps were in need of upgrading amid the tightening of access, including the closure of the Sufa border crossing and the weakened financial position of the Palestinian Authority, owing to the lengthy international boycott.  Also, the inter-Palestinian conflict had led some refugees to seek assistance for the very first time, after decades of self-reliance.  There was a need, therefore, for greater international effort to improve the Agency’s financial health.

In addition, he said, the degree to which civilian lives and safety were currently at risk required “creative and forthright” political measures to create a more stable environment.  Insecurity in Gaza and the West Bank had grown since June, while Israeli settlements were being expanded, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  The continued construction of the separation wall only contributed to a further sense of siege of the Palestinian people.  It was a matter of grave concern, as well, that insecurity had forced UNRWA to evacuate its personnel from Gaza, and that its own access to persons in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was tenuous.  The detention, on occasion, of its staff by Israel was also unacceptable.

He said the levy of fees and charges for the transit of humanitarian goods through Israeli ports had worsened, owing to the increasingly frequent closure of the few existing crossing points into Gaza.  As the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs had said, it was “difficult to see how security concerns could justify the hardship” that such measures were causing.  The only lasting solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees was a just, lasting and comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict.  Until the day that peace was achieved, the international community should continue to fully support UNRWA as the primary source of humanitarian relief for Palestinian refugees.

MOHAMED FATHI EDREES ( Egypt) said that UNRWA was implementing its activities in a very difficult area, which was constantly in upheaval because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and because Israel was always encroaching on Arab lands.  Although the Agency was implementing its mandate, the suffering of the Palestinian people grew and the situation deteriorated, as several reports from the United Nations showed.  The crossing points were continually being shut down and violence continued, contributing to the growing difficulties the Agency faced on the ground.  Hopefully, however, the upcoming conference on the Middle East would be able to improve the situation of the Palestinian refugees. 

He said his country would do everything possible to help the Agency assist the Palestinian people, including through financial and material support.  The deteriorating situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where there was widespread hunger, and collapsing infrastructure and services, showed that a humanitarian disaster was possible.  Israel’s threat to cut off the power, despite its knowledge of the situation of the people in the Gaza Strip, was contrary to international and humanitarian law.  The establishment of military areas and curfews continued to increase the suffering of the Palestinian people and rendered UNRWA’s provision of services for their basic needs nearly impossible. 

The problem was not just a humanitarian one, he continued.  Palestinians in the West Bank were prevented from getting to work, visiting relatives and seeking medical services.  There was a need to provide freedom of movement and instil confidence in those who were experiencing increasing despair.  The continuing occupation was pushing people towards more violence and extremism -– a situation that stymied efforts to reach an agreement.  Because of the growing poverty and suffering as a result of the construction of the separation wall, Egypt condemned its construction.  Noting the condemnation of the wall by the International Court of Justice and General Assembly resolutions, he said its construction should be stopped and what had been built should be torn down.

Egypt hoped that UNRWA’s request to set up more posts would be taken into account, he said.  Its request for more staff was justified by the need to provide more services.  The shrinking funding required that more donations should also be sought from donors.  Egypt reaffirmed its full and consistent support for the efforts of the Agency and the United Nations for Palestine and the Middle East.

HABIB MANSOUR ( Tunisia) commended UNRWA and its officials for the good work that they had done.  The Agency’s report should serve as a reminder to the international community of the important role it played in preserving the well- being of Palestinian refugees.  He expressed concern, however, about the obstacles faced by the Agency in implementing its programmes; Israel had done much to cause the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Territory.  Urgent measures should be taken to allow the Agency to carry out its work, now reaching more than 4 million refugees in the Gaza Strip.

He voiced support for recommendations of the working group in its report on the Agency’s finances, and encouraged Member States to provide financial and in-kind support to UNRWA, especially in light of the rising number of refugees and frequency of emergencies.  He thanked donor States for their constant support provided by them, and hoped such support would increase in the future.  He also commended the Agency for embarking on a reform programme, aimed at increasing its efficiency.  The international community should help that programme by filling the gap in the reform budget.  Finally, he stressed that only a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East question would guarantee that the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people were restored to them.

SALAHUDDIN NOMAN CHOWDHURY ( Bangladesh) said it was a matter of deep regret that the issue of hazard pay had not been resolved, despite the fact that UNRWA staff were often exposed to danger in the course of their work.  Also, Bangladesh strongly condemned the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements, which were encroaching on Palestinian lands.  Israel’s illegal construction of the wall in the West Bank and its associated regime of permits and closures had severely affected the livelihood of Palestinians.  Such restrictions obstructed access to employment, income, essential goods and services.  As noted in the report, per capita gross domestic product had declined by almost 7 per cent and poverty had increased by 30 per cent.  Bangladesh reiterated its demand for the removal of those restrictions.

He also voiced concern over the restrictions placed on UNRWA personnel and vehicles by Israel, while the imposition of taxes by Israel on UNRWA was a violation of international law.  He said that thee Agency’s continued efforts to promote income-generating activities among the low-income group was highly appreciated, especially its use of micro-credit.  Being a major proponent of the micro-credit approach, Bangladesh called for an expansion of that programme.  Meanwhile, he acknowledged the generosity of those donors, host countries and relevant agencies that had already contributed to the cause, and called for a response to UNRWA’s appeal for emergency funding to rebuild Nahr el-Bared camp.

KHALID EID AL-SHAMMRI ( Saudi Arabia), noting that the number of Palestinian refugees had reached 4.5 million since UNRWA’s establishment, said the United Nations and all Member States had a collective responsibility under international law to protect them.  Figures cited in the report revealed the “ugliness and brutality” of the Israeli occupation, to which the refugees were exposed daily, despite the work of the Agency and other organizations.  Israel had imposed a freeze and taxes on the Agency, in contravention of several conventions and resolutions.  As a result of the obstacles created by the occupying Power, UNRWA, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank had had to suspend projects for the infrastructure that were about to be undertaken.  UNRWA had also had to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to warehouse food because the Israeli practices prevented the Agency from delivering it.  Those measures were taken under a pretext security concerns; yet, according to the report, all of those measures had had nothing to do with security.

Stressing that Saudi Arabia felt a duty to help the Palestinian people, owing to their shared Muslim faith, he said his country continued to provide financial support to the Agency.  On the other hand, financial support was not the only aid to the refugees.  Saudi Arabia believed it also needed to provide political support.  The Kingdom condemned all the acts committed by Israel, including all the taxes imposed by Israel on UNRWA’s property.  It was important to exert all efforts to help the Agency fulfil its mandate until a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was found.  He noted the initiative for peace created by the Arab League towards that goal, and emphasized the need to return the land to its proper owners.  He added that that right was not a matter of dispute; nothing abrogated this right. 

MONA BEHBEHANI ( Kuwait) voiced appreciation for the valuable services provided by UNRWA, as reflected in the Commissioner-General’s report, including sanitation, educational and health services to the Palestinian refugees, among other things.  The Agency should continue offering its services until a just solution to the question of Palestinian refugees was found, despite the many hindrances it faced in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

She voiced appreciation for UNRWA’s reform programme, saying it was an important step in improving the quality of the Agency’s education and health care programmes.  For its part, Kuwait provided aid to the Palestinian people by paying for infrastructure projects through international institutions and organizations.  It also funded other projects intended to preserve the Islamic identity of Al-Quds ( Jerusalem) and to provide support to the families of martyrs.  It spent approximately $1.5 million per year on refugees.

Israel had engaged in “coercive policies”, which suppressed civilian populations, in direct contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, she said.  Israel was also “assassinating people”.  It had long justified its policies on the basis of self-defence, yet the facts showed that its actions had not made it safer, but rather, had only exacerbated the violence.  In addition, Israel was creating obstacles to the supply of humanitarian assistance and aid, and, in so doing, had violated various United Nations accords, including the Comay-Michelmore Agreement it had signed with UNRWA.  Kuwait urged the Israeli Government to respect relevant General Assembly resolutions and Security Council resolutions, such as the one on “land for peace”.

JONAS CARSTEN JOLLE ( Norway) commended UNRWA and its staff for their untiring efforts in assisting the Palestinian refugees under difficult and often dangerous circumstances.  The Agency had a regional mandate provide by the General Assembly, and its efforts in each of the host countries merited particular recognition.  The situation for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and among those displaced from Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon was particularly desperate, and UNRWA had had to provide the safety net.  Stressing that Nahr al-Bared should not be forgotten; he said that thousands of refugees were facing a harsh winter.  The massive destruction of their livelihoods, education and health facilities should be addressed.  Noting that Norway had provided $2 million in humanitarian aid, he urged all donors to contribute to the emergency appeal for the camp.

Two years after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, he said that the social and economic situation was rapidly deteriorating.  Had it not been for international food aid, the indicators would have been even more negative.  The cost of providing food aid was rising steadily as import restrictions increased, and those costs were borne by UNRWA and its donor countries.  Emergency measures that had been set up to deliver basic health and education services also placed a heavy burden on the Agency.  In a situation were the only imports into Gaza were humanitarian goods, there were few prospects for economic development. 

Norway called on Israel to ease restrictions on the movement of goods and people and to refrain from administering punitive measures on an entire population by reducing the supply of fuel and electricity to Gaza, he said, adding that his country would continue to be a strong supporter of UNRWA.

ADI GHASSAN KHAIR (Jordan) said that the question of refugees was the “cornerstone” of the Palestinian question and would become one of the most important facets of the eventual comprehensive settlement.  Jordan had a direct interest in the matter, since it hosted more than 1.8 million Palestinian refugees -- 42 per cent of all Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA.  In addition, Jordan was faced by a problem of internally displaced persons as a result of the June war.  Around $160 million had been spent so far to cover education and health care costs brought about by the refugees and the displaced.

He said that UNRWA had been unable to provide for the growing needs in the various refugee camps throughout the Middle East, as a result of its own funding problems.  Jordan stressed the importance of finding a solution to the question of refugees, namely to allow them the right of return.  They must also be compensated for the loss of land or property, in accordance to existing international agreements.  Jordan itself had a right to compensation, since it had hosted refugees and other displaced persons for more than five decades, at a large cost to itself.

The Agency’s role would remain central until a final solution was found, he said, calling on donors to raise their level of contributions to UNRWA, whose budget deficit was expected to reach over $100 million in 2007.  It was important to deal with the question of Palestinian refugees equally, regardless of the recipient country.  In addition, Jordan remained concerned by the separation wall, and the closures and curfews imposed by Israel on the Palestinians, which impeded their movement and affected their ability to earn a proper income or move their goods, thus increasing the cost of doing business.  Israel and the rest of the international community had a responsibility to protect UNRWA staff.  The Agency’s reform process was must appreciated; an improved UNRWA would increase the confidence of donor States.

KELLY KNIGHT ( United States) said her country shared concerns for the hardships faced by the Palestinian people.  The United States had provided $50 million through USAID (United States Agency for International Development) to support the basic needs, education and civil service groups of the Palestinian refugees.  It was also one of the largest contributors to UNRWA.  It strongly supported the Agency’s mandate and considered it a stabilizing force in the region.  The United States called on other countries, including those in the region, to increase their donations to UNRWA’s budget.

She said that UNRWA, as the second largest employer in Gaza and the provider of a large portion of services to the Palestinian population, was giving a great deal of assistance to the refugees in that area.  It was also providing crucial assistance to the refugees in Lebanon and working with the Lebanese Government to address the needs of refugees in the Nahr el-Bared camp.

Noting the Agency’s work to enhance its fiscal responsability, she said the United States strongly supported UNRWA’s 2006 organization development plan and recognized that UNRWA was seeking additional staff to implement it.  The United States was cognizant that success in achieving the Agency’s management reform goals was dependent on that staffing increase and, therefore, it strongly supported that initiative.

KHALID MOHAMMED OSMAN SIDAHMED MOHAMMED ALI ( Sudan) commended UNRWA for its good work, sometimes conducted at the expense of the lives of its staff.  He noted that the problems faced by Palestinian refugees grew each day, as a result restrictions imposed on them by Israel, as well as Israel’s “infiltrations” and its declaration of Gaza as a hostile entity.  Meanwhile, the wall continued to be built.  There had also been the “summer war” with Lebanon to consider.

He said that the situation would only improve once a solution to the Palestinian question was found, and indeed, the Palestinian people had a right to self-determination and an independent State, with Jerusalem as its capital.  He called on the international community and other donors to support UNRWA so that it could continue to provide services to the Palestinian people.  They should also respond generously to the appeals for resources to help rebuild the Nahr el-Bared camp.  In addition, the Sudan welcomed the creation of 20 new posts within UNRWA, and lent its support to the Agency’s reform efforts, which would help improve its use of human and financial resources, and raise the quality of its services.  Likewise, the international community was called on to support countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, which were home to many Palestinian refugees. 

CELESTINO MIGLIORE, Observer of the Holy See, said that negotiations towards a two-State solution to the Israeli/Palestinian crisis must resume, in order to end the injustice that caused innocent people on all sides to continue to suffer terribly.  In that context, he expressed hope that the international conference planned for the end of this month would move the peace process towards the definition of a realistic accord.  As that was much easier said than done, given the recurrent cycles of violence, he encouraged groups within both Israeli and Palestinian civil society to reach out to each other.

In addition, he stressed that a lasting solution must include the status of the Holy City of Jerusalem.  In light of the numerous incidents of violence and challenges to free movement posed by the security wall, he reiterated the Holy See’s support for internationally guaranteed provisions to ensure the freedom of religion and of conscience, as well as permanent, free and unhindered access to Holy Places by the faithful of all religions and nationalities.

The Chairman thanked the Committee members for their statements and invited UNRWA Commissioner-General, KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, to make concluding remarks today since she would be unable to attend the rest of the general debate on this item.

Concluding Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General

UNRWA Commissioner-General, Ms. ABUZAYD expressed appreciation for the support the Committee had shown her Agency during its general debate.  She was grateful for the financial assistance that had been pledged to UNRWA.  The attention paid to the reform programme was also welcome.  Noting that the Agency was constantly working to improve its delivery of assistance to the refugees, she expressed hope that the request for additional staffing would be approved.

She said that moving from words to action was required to address the political factors that lay at the heart of the conflict.  Stressing that UNRWA’s mandate would come up next spring, she expressed hope that it would be extended.  The refugees had been patient for a long time and, through the contributions of the Member States, were working to have a better life.  In conclusion, she noted that this annual debate was no formality, but stood as evidence of the important work needed to be done to aid the refugees.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.